Merritt Brown Middle School was one of the many Bay District Schools that was severely damaged by Hurricane Michael.
The school originally started out as a shelter with staff arriving at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, October 9th to prep, with officials from the Red Cross coming later that evening to assist.
Merritt Brown wasn’t just any regular shelter, but also a special needs shelter. This year was the first year they were going to attempt to be a shelter because of the great need in Bay County.
Principal, Charlotte Marshall, said there were about 200 to 300 people in the shelter that evening until they got the news that the generators would not work should the power be knocked out. Playing it safe, they sent everyone to the Rutherford shelter around 9 p.m. Tuesday and staff said it’s a good thing they did.
They evacuated the residents who came seeking shelter, but staff as well as members of the Air Force who could not evacuate stayed. The staff included Marshall and her mother, the assistant principal, teachers and their families.
They rode out the storm in the building and had no idea how bad the storm would become. “It was scary. The wind got worse and water got worse. The roof flew off building 4 and then the gym and cafeteria roofs flew off shortly after, it was terrifying,” said Marshall.
Marshall said the first roof to fly off was the roof of building 1, the building housing the members of the Air Force. The band room and computer lab were also in building one and suffered heavy damage. Marshall said some equipment in the band room was lost, but what could be saved is packed up and is being held in a large semi-truck in front of the school.
As for the computer lab, it’s a total loss. Of the 48 computers in the room before the storm, all are gone. There are two other computer labs on campus that also lost everything. “It will take a while to get all that technology replaced,” said Marshall.
The night of the storm, Marshall said conditions continued to deteriorate and people continued knocking on the door seeking shelter, not knowing they had closed their doors to the public. “Our priority was the safety of the people, and we really wanted to let them in but instead directed them to the Rutherford shelter. It’s a good thing we did because we had no idea we would receive the damage we did,” Marshall said.
There was ankle deep water in building 1, the cafeteria, and the gymnasium. Merritt Brown is one of the few schools with an upstairs building and those upper level classrooms also filled with water. Marshall said the upstairs building, building 4, suffered the worst damage. The roof was torn off building 4 and water intruded the inside– destroying everything.
Of the 58 classrooms on campus, 20 were completely destroyed. A majority of the classroom supplies and furniture could not be saved. They didn’t just lose classrooms, they also lost students. Marshall said the school is at about 60% capacity. Merritt Brown had 770 students prior to the storm and now have about 500 total.
The media center that is housed in building 5, was one of the few buildings that did not lose the roof. Those who rode out the storm in the school, stayed there.
Although students will be returning to their home-schools on January 22nd, the students and staff at Merritt Brown will not be able to use the main campus. There is plenty of work to be done. Pre-storm, the school had one of the nicest gyms in town, according to Marshall. Now, they must replace the gym floor, fix the roof and remove one of the portables that existed pre-storm due to heavy damage.
The students will be attending classes in portables by the basketball courts until the work on the main campus can be completed. Marshall estimates that they will most likely be in these portables through the end of the school year.
“I never thought a storm would cause this much damage to the school. Being here the night of the Hurricane scared us to death. Just seeing the roof flapping in the wind, it was scary,” Marshall said.
Student records have been removed from the main office. Since they are rebuilding the campus, they plan to install the new necessary safety measures during the process.