JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. – When students arrived back at St. Paul's Catholic School in Jacksonville Beach on Thursday, they found out about some major damage to the school.
From the outside of the Father William Kelly Athletic Center at St. Paul's Catholic Church, there's not much visible damage to the building. But a look from the Sky 4 helicopter above the school shows a massive hole inside the gym.
School leaders said the roof collapsed during the height of Hurricane Irma.
The school has had to make some changes, using the parking lots for things that would normally happen inside the gym.
Principal Krissy Thompson said when she got the call on Monday about the damage, she never expected what she saw when she got there.
"It just keeps growing exponentially -- the effect this is having on our school, our parish and the entire Jacksonville Beach community," Thompson told News4Jax on Thursday.
Last week, it still looked like a nearly brand-new gym with new paint, new bleachers, a new scoreboard and new basketball hoops.
But now, Father William Kelly Athletic Center has many cracks on the outside, making it unsafe for anyone to even go near. On the inside, many of the new things inside the gym have been destroyed. The roof collapsed. Basketball hoops fell. Beams were pulled off the wall.
"This gym is a big gym. It's been here a long time," Thompson said. "The power or the wrath of Mother Nature is pretty overwhelming when you see it like this."
Thompson said she has received support from alumni across the country, other schools in the area and many in the Jacksonville Beach community. But she said the loss of the gym is especially hard on this year’s eighth graders.
"This is their year. And so many of them, as I said, have spent their lives playing basketball here," Thompson said. "Every activity that we have, every big event is in this gym."
A gym she knows will eventually be better than ever.
The school’s motto this year has been one word: Greater. Thompson told News4Jax they are trying to be greater in everything they do, and while what happened to this building is a setback, she knows what comes of it will be greater than it has ever been.
Thompson also shared the message she shared with the students when they went back to school on Thursday:
I am so happy to have you all back safely with us. As you have heard, our gym was damaged by Hurricane Irma. Our beloved gym, the Father Kelly Athletic Center, is so important to so many people. Coach Hulihan and I have received phone calls from all over the country from former students and people within our beaches community asking to help. St. Paul’s has always helped other schools and now they are all asking to help us. Repairs may take a very long time. We cannot use the playground or field until everything is safe.
"This will be a very different year for us, but I also know we will come back greater than ever. All the wonderful events that we look forward to each year will still go on and they will be spectacular. I need all of you to help me make this happen. Father Houle is working very hard to make sure our gym is back as quickly as possible and will be beautiful. I am excited about our future, but I will need the help of every student and teacher in the next few months. Remember, God is with us always and God loves basketball.
"We are St. Paul’s Strong."