How Gamecock Village Recovered From an EF3 Tornado
On March 19, 2018, at 8:30 pm, an EF3 tornado with sustained winds of nearly 150 mph struck the small college town of Jacksonville, Alabama. Jacksonville, located 100 miles west of Atlanta, is home to the Jacksonville State University Gamecocks.
Founded in 1883, JSU has a student population of nearly 8,000. Miraculously, the tornado struck when most students had already left for spring break.
The tornado, which was on the ground for nearly 50 minutes, severely damaged much of the campus and surrounding areas. At Gamecock Village, a popular 500-bed off-campus student housing complex, the tornado ripped off the top floors of two buildings, and caused severe damage to nine other multi-story buildings on the property.
“We had 433 houses that had damage, and 39 of those totally destroyed,” Jacksonville mayor Johnny Smith said.
Preiss Company property manager Darrick English added, “Just to see your property and see the damage that a tornado could do, it was awful.”
Jonathan Cameron-Hayes, CEO of property owner Calidus, recalled getting the news. “I got a call about 4:00 in the morning from the Preiss Company saying there’d been a major disaster. I was able then to drive down and be here within about six hours.”
“It looked like a war zone”
“I remember just coming down that stretch and seeing…slabs, just slabs, nothing there,” BluSky project manager Bryan Brabner said of his arrival on the scene. “The university, looking over and seeing those buildings, just all the roofs gone, all the trees gone, and it just looked like a war zone as far as you could see.”
Preiss Company regional manager Gavin Short explained their first concern upon learning of the destruction. “In the beginning, you know absolutely nothing. Did anyone get hurt? Is there any loss of life? You know, we’re not really worried about the property at that point, we’re worried about the students.”
Mayor Smith pointed out how much worse the devastation could have been. “It would have been a different story, I think, if we’d not been on spring break. That was a real blessing. When you look at what happened here at this facility, you look at some of those upper levels, if the kids had been in there I don’t think they could have survived it.”
A massive and time-sensitive rebuild
After an unfortunate 30-day false start with another contractor, ownership and property management brought in BluSky Restoration Contractors to restart work on this massive and timely project.
With classes starting in four months, there was immense pressure to get at least 400 beds ready for the fall semester. Missing this window would have devastating impacts on ownership, property management, the university, and the entire Jacksonville community. The bar was set.
“If you’re not able to move the students in the day before school starts at the latest, you’re dead. No student’s gonna move in on a Wednesday in October,” Short explained.
Cameron-Hayes credited BluSky Restoration Contractors with getting the project back on track. “BluSky was actually brought in as the second general contractor, as the first contractor was not performing properly. BluSky got involved and very quickly got control of the situation.”
BluSky national project director Stephen O’Neill described the company’s massive deployment to Gamecock Village. “We had hundreds and hundreds of workers that were out here, that went from zero to three or four hundred employees overnight, within the first 24 hours.”
“BluSky was like, you know, the Superman for Gamecock Village,” English exclaimed. “They came in and they began to work. You started seeing things happen around the property, the trees going away, the fence coming back around, cleanup process going…”
Leading with compassion in a crisis
At BluSky, our approach to large loss catastrophic weather events is unique. And when our customers are in crisis, we lead with compassion.
“There’s a great success story here of how we helped the lives of the students, we helped the school, we helped the city,” O’Neill said. It was a great success here, all the way around for everybody.”
Brabner echoed that sentiment. “What we mean and what we do is far greater than just fixing a broken building. You’re fixing people’s lives in the community and helping them get their lives back on track, just being here.”
Smith recalled his skepticism about Gamecock Village being able to reopen in time for students to return for the new school year. “I heard really good things, and the very fact that they could get 400 beds ready by August, when I heard they could do that, I thought, ‘no way, no way that could happen.’ But they proved me wrong, thank goodness! And our folks at City Hall have been very complimentary of their experience with them, so good job, BluSky!”
Constant communication: the key to success
Strong praised the two-way flow of communication between contractor and client. “We think student housing is a big deal because that’s what we do all day. But it would be easy for someone like BluSky to come in and go, ‘Ah, you don’t know what you’re talking about. We build stuff all the time, we’ll do this.’ But they listened; they understood. They said, ‘Oh, I get it.’”
Cameron-Hayes added, “There was a constant flow of communication; I always understood what was going on, which made this project much easier from an owner’s point of view, to understand what was going on.”
“Were genuine in doing what we say we’re going to do,” said Brabner. “From the availability to each and everyone here, just answering a phone call, from our CEO down, we are available. We MAKE ourselves available.”
“For Calidus, this was a big event, and we are a big, growing real estate business,” Cameron-Hayes concluded. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons, we’ve met a lot of good friends and partners in putting Gamecock back together, including insurance carriers, adjusters, construction managers, and BluSky. We will go on working with all of those people.”
BluSky approaches large loss differently. So should you.