FEMA Could Change Mind On Funding New Hancock County School

While Gulfview and Charles B. Murphy Elementary students spent months in trailers, Hancock County school leaders searched for a site to build them a new, combined school.

"They were excited about this school. It would consolidate the south end," said Hancock County Superintendent David Kopf.

Kopf says the district finally got permission from FEMA to build the new South Hancock Elementary in the Lakeshore community.

The designs were finalized and the groundbreaking was set for June 21st.  But on the eve of the ceremony, a letter arrived from FEMA.

"We received a memo on June 20th, that told us that we could not proceed with our building," Kopf said. "We could proceed, but they would not fund the building process. It was sort of kind of astounding, and it did surprise us, because we were prepared to build the next day."

FEMA says it won't fund the project, because the property falls in a Coastal High Hazard Area.

"This delay has really hurt the community, and hurt the school children," Kopf said. "The children have been in trailers already. So what we were trying to do is to constrain our time line so we could get them in the '08-'09 school years.  Get them out of the portable buildings into a regular building. So obviously, this was a major disappointment to the district."

Kopf says the delay is also costing the district a lot of money.

"The district is incurring $1,500 per day, because we've already signed a contract with Roy Anderson to go and proceed with this project," Kopf said.

Sid Melton, with FEMA, says the issue is a priority. He says key leaders within the federal agency, including FEMA administrator David Paulson, are using the latest flood maps to study the site again.

"He's looking at it personally, dealing with it directly," said Melton. "So I'm confident that we're going to have a positive outcome of this. The positive outcome would be that the school would be able to just go ahead and rebuild where it's at, with some mitigation efforts in it."

Superintendent Kopf says he's encouraged by the optimism. But he wants to get the final word, in writing.

"We'd be elated and excited," Kopf said. "The first thing I would do is call the architect and we can start work."

The superintendent has asked Governor Haley Barbour and lawmakers from Mississippi to lobby on the district's behalf. FEMA says a decision on the project could come sometime this week.