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Middle School In Panama City, Fla., Partially Destroyed By Hurricane Michael

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right. For more now on how Panama City is coping after this storm, we're going to go to Britt Smith. He's the principal of Jinks Middle School there. His school suffered tremendous damage. Walls buckled. Portions of roofs were entirely ripped away. The gymnasium is essentially destroyed. Britt Smith evacuated in advance of the storm. And he joins me now from Bradington, which is about six hours away from Panama City. Hey, Britt. I'm so sorry to hear about your school.

BRITT SMITH: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. And I appreciate everyone's thoughts and prayers. It's making a difference.

CHANG: So the way I understand you, you learned about the extensive damage to Jinks Middle School when you were watching the news, six hours away.

SMITH: Yes, that's how I learned about it. Actually, I came across the footage and saw it. And it was just heart-wrenching.

CHANG: Tell me about those images when you were first discovering the scale of the damage to Jinks Middle School.

SMITH: Yeah. Well, you know, looking at the gym - and what I know is that gym is so symbolic because we do everything, from having athletic events to graduations that take place in that gym. And our kids actually go there every morning. It's where they gather with their friends, and they talk and socialize before they go to class. So for me, I think about my kids, you know. And you wonder, what is that sense of security that's now ripped away?

CHANG: Have you been able to reach out to any of the students and staff to see how they're doing?

SMITH: Fortunately, we've been able to get in touch with about 80 percent of our people. And they're all doing well. We don't have any - no loss of life or injury or something like that. So from that standpoint, that's good. We also know from - I know from talking to people that I have, like Coach Gainer, who is my basketball coach - just 30 minutes before this interview, I had a call and found out he's lost everything. His home's been destroyed. And so it's...

CHANG: Gosh.

SMITH: We're having to rebuild everything.

CHANG: I understand that there's a lesson already within your student body at Jinks Middle School. You have a few students from Puerto Rico who actually arrived after being driven out of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria.

SMITH: Yes. Yes, we actually - our school is a site where we have a program called the Newcomer Program. And last year, we had close to a dozen kids that came to our school because they were evacuees of the hurricane that they had. And our kids had a chance to interact with them, to learn from them, to be friends with them. We have several that have stayed.

But what we are able to do is to take that lesson of what those kids went through and just say, you know what? Look how they dealt with the situation. Look how they're still moving forward. And what we need to do is to help our kids understand that you're going to be that next model for the next person. Together, you can make positive things happen.

CHANG: Is it too early right now to say if you have any idea yet when your school might be able to reopen?

SMITH: It's too early to know when it will be open. We feel good about the individual classrooms because we do have hurricane shutters that are up. What we don't know is about the roof and some other things. We lost - all of our portable classrooms are damaged. But the bigger issue and the bigger problem are being able to make certain that we have electricity, being able to have running water, sewage, all of those things.

And then, in addition to being able to have people that are still there, I'm concerned about kids who may be leaving the area seeking refuge and whether or not they're coming back. And if they don't come back, the concern is they've been through this catastrophic event. Who's helping take care of those needs?

CHANG: Well, I do wish you the very best of luck, Britt.

SMITH: Well, I appreciate it. And I appreciate you sharing this story because you are helping me to illustrate to our kids that people care and that we have our entire nation that is pulling for us and is going to help us. So I appreciate your time.

CHANG: Britt Smith is the principal of Jinks Middle School in Panama City, Fla. Thank you very, very much.

SMITH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLD SPECKS' "HOLLAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.