16.9.17

Robert E. Lee Elementary burns to the ground... because of Irma

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A Tampa school that was the center of controversy over a possible name change burned down Tuesday night.

Robert E. Lee Elementary School, just north of downtown Tampa, caught fire shortly after power was restored Tuesday night.

The school was not used as a hurricane shelter for Irma, according to Bay News 9.


The oldest magnet school in Hillsborough County, which some school board members were trying to rename as part of a nationwide movement to remove Confederate symbols, burned down as hundreds of residents watched and children cried.

The school was built in 1906 and was now called the Lee Elementary Magnet School of World Studies and Technology. Its 330 students and 49 staffers haven't been in school this week because all Hillsborough County schools were closed in advance of Hurricane Irma.

The school was not used as a shelter during Irma, which residents said knocked out power in the surrounding neighborhoods. Power was restored Tuesday evening, residents said, then they saw smoke coming from the roof and fire engines racing in.

The fire was reported at 6:46 p.m., and firefighters were on scene five minutes later. The neighborhoods soon lost power again.

Crowds gathered for blocks around and watched firefighters try to tamp down the blaze from afar. They set up three water cannons on the ground and used ladder trucks to aim two more from above.

Investigators were considering whether the fire could be linked to restoration of electrical power in the area.

Flames could be seen shooting out of the second floor windows of the three-story building as streams of water were poured onto the crumbling roof, which was brand-new. The building also has hardwood floors, adding to the kindling.

"I'm in awe," said Bia Harris, who was house-sitting for a friend across Columbus Drive. "It's incredible. Devastating, but incredible."

The school district's history of the building said it was built in 1906 by neighborhood volunteers. It was called Michigan Avenue Grammar School then, but renamed for the Confederacy's most famous general in 1943, when the street was renamed Columbus Drive. It became Hillsborough's first magnet school in 1993 with a focus on technology. The world studies program was added in 2008.

Claitt, like many in Tampa, was aware of the controversy surrounding the name.

"It was named after an inappropriate person," she said. "It should have been changed years ago."

MIDUFINGA

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