Hurricane Deals Harsh Blow to Fla., La. Schools
Hurricane Andrew, the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history, late last month delivered a knockout blow that wreaked hundreds of millions of dollars in damage on schools and displaced tens of thousands of students in Florida and Louisiana.
In Dade County, Fla., where an area roughly 20 by 20 miles was virtually flattened by the Aug. 24 storm, the opening of school has been delayed for at least two weeks until Sept. 14. School officials are devising a plan to reassign thousands of students--many of whom are homeless.
Students in some of the hardest-hit areas of Louisiana are expected to return to school this week; others returned last week.
In southern Dade County, "we are going to be operating under less-than-normal conditions for this school year,'' said Henry C. Fraind, the chief spokesman for the county's public schools.
In Morgan City, La., meanwhile, Anna Cunningham, a special-education aide, said last week that she had "just gotten myself together.''
"We have really experienced something over the last week,'' she said. "Yesterday was the first day I did not cry, which is what you want to do every time you leave your driveway.''
President Bush last week pledged that the federal government would pick up 100 percent--rather than the typical 75 percent--of the estimated $30 billion in cleanup and repair costs to public facilities in Florida.
Though Dade County district officials were still scrambling last week to assess the damage and to identify structurally unsound buildings, preliminary estimates peg the damage to schools at $250 million to $300 million; insurance is expected to cover about $150 million.
As of late last week, Louisiana, where damage to schools in 18 parishes is still being assessed and compiled, had not received a similar offer from the federal government.
The President and Congress also agreed to channel $40 million to Dade County schools for transportation and operating costs. The money is being appropriated from $90 million left in a contingency fund approved by Congress for the current fiscal year.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Education Department has dispatched 100 employee volunteers for at least 10 days to assist in relief efforts, and Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander planned to visit Florida late last week.
The department is establishing disaster-response centers to assist students who may need new or additional federal financial aid for college as a result of the hurricane. Sites in Louisiana have not been chosen; three teams will be in Florida--at the University of Miami, Florida International University, and Dade Community College.
Assessing the Destruction
Nearly all of the 287 schools in Dade County, the nation's fourth-largest public school district, sustained some damage. Thirty to 35 of them were "inoperable'' as of late last week, Mr. Fraind, the district's spokesman, said.
"Each school took a proportionate hit,'' he said.
Two schools in the Archdiocese of Miami, which educates 20,000 students in Dade County, were severely damaged. Others sustained varying degrees of damage, Sister Noreen Werner, the superintendent of Catholic schools, said.
Even public schools out of the direct path of Andrew's 150-mile-an-hour winds did not escape unscathed. Officials reported that many are still without electricity and plumbing.
Some schools have also suffered damage since being pressed into service as shelters for the thousands who have been left homeless or as makeshift medical facilities. Windows were deliberately broken in some schools, for instance, to permit air to circulate through buildings.
"You had thousands and thousands of people jammed into unsanitary conditions in buildings,'' said Pat O'Connell, the executive staff director of the state education commissioner's office. "That has added to the damage the schools have had to deal with.''
Flexible Scheduling Pondered
Before the storm, schools had been scheduled to open Aug. 31. Authorities initially rescheduled the opening for Sept. 8, and then moved the target date to Sept. 14.
School officials said that thousands of students will be temporarily reassigned.
Mr. Fraind said the district will opt for some sort of flexible scheduling, but will not decide whether to go to double sessions, split sessions, or some other format until this week.
"What we're afraid to do now is to put out estimates or conjecture to the public and then confuse the public,'' he said last Thursday.
Earlier, Mr. Fraind had said that the district would try to keep students as close to their homes as possible.
Monroe County schools, in the Florida Keys south of Dade County, have offered to take as many as 3,000 students, the spokesman said.
Broward County schools north of Miami are also enrolling students who have temporarily relocated there. So far, Broward has enrolled about 1,000 Dade students.
Both districts have expedited the enrollment process.
"We knew they may not have any paperwork,'' said Damian Huttenhoff, an assistant superintendent in Broward County. "The goal was to get them into the schools without any red tape.''
At the request of Dade County, State Commissioner of Education Betty Castor reduced the state's school-day requirement by 30 minutes. District officials are confident, however, that they will be able to meet the 180-day school-year requirement.
Education Takes a Back Seat
As many as 175,000 people are estimated to be homeless in Dade County, many of them schoolchildren.
Among the homeless are an estimated 5,000 employees of the school district. School officials last week dedicated Reuben Dario Middle School as a home for displaced employees and their families.
Although several hundred have shown up for food, information, and other services, Mr. Fraind said last week that only one family was living there full time.
"We are finding there is a more urgent need for schools to serve as shelters rather than to function as schools,'' said Ron Sachs, the director of communications for the Florida Education Association/United, the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.
Dade school officials have vowed that no person will be turned away from the schools before alternate shelter is available.
U.S. military troops are setting up tent cities for the homeless, but the process is slow.
"We've got to get Dade County back on its feet first,'' Mr. Fraind said. "That is why education had to take a back seat.''
But, he added, "there comes a point in time where we need normalcy.''
One development that could help restore normalcy, many people believe, is the opening of schools.
"It will be amazing how things will start falling into place once they get the schools open, and the children are in a protected environment, and their parents can do what needs to be done,'' said Martha C. Knight of the Charleston County schools, which were damaged when Hurricane Hugo hit the South Carolina coast three years ago.
"The kids want their routine,'' Ms. Knight added. "Here, they were ready to get back to the point where they no longer had to listen to chain saws and generators and worry about water and stepping on nails and where they go to the bathroom. Plus, it sort of says to the rest of the world that something is working, because we're back to school.''
Spreading the Word
School officials said one of the most difficult tasks they face is trying to communicate with parents who have been left homeless or without telephones, televisions, and newspaper and mail delivery.
Radio and television outlets are broadcasting school-related information, and The Miami Herald has been devoting several pages in each edition to listing sources of help and information.
District officials have held several news conferences at which they have provided information in English, Spanish, and Creole for the Haitian population.
Meanwhile, volunteers from across the state--and, in some cases, from elsewhere in the nation--have rushed to the schools' aid.
The Monroe County district has been preparing food, and one of its football teams, its coaches, and several administrators headed north last week to provide assistance.
The district is also searching for housing for Dade County teachers who end up working temporarily in the Monroe schools.
The Florida School Boards Association has been lining up rotating shifts of maintenance personnel to help out in Dade County.
In Jacksonville last week, a crew of 25 carpenters, glaziers, landscape specialists, and other personnel from the Duval County district planned to head south with bulldozers, chain saws, and other construction equipment.
So Much To Think About
The school boards association is also coordinating teachers and counselors to go into Dade County when schools open.
"There are so many of their employees who are homeless, we are going to have to put other teachers in there to help,'' said Wayne Blanton, the executive director of the association.
Sandra Fernandez, a Dade County teacher whose apartment was destroyed in the storm, said last week that she longed to return to the routine of work, but that she doubted she was ready.
"If I had to go to work, I don't think I would be in the right state of mind to deal with the children,'' said Ms. Fernandez, who is living with a friend. "Some of the students definitely will be from those [hardest-hit] areas, and you are going to have to talk about it for their benefit and for your own.''
Ms. Fernandez also said she expects class sizes to increase.
Given the magnitude of the destruction, some observers suggest that a Sept. 14 opening date may be optimistic.
"If they are able to open schools on the 14th, and get those kids fed and, to what extent necessary, clothed, and their health needs met and a textbook in their hands, I think that will be pretty close to a miracle,'' Ms. O'Connell of the state education department said. "They are very determined.''
School officials in Charleston, S.C., who were among the first to offer assistance to Dade school officials, said they had to postpone their initial date for reopening schools.
"You've got to think about so many things,'' Ms. Knight, a spokeswoman for the school district, said. "You can't just slam-dunk kids into buildings.''
Damage in Louisiana
In Louisiana, where Hurricane Andrew reserved its most serious punch for St. Mary Parish before sweeping across other parishes in the southern part of the state, State Superintendent of Education Raymond G. Arveson had declared 18 school systems disaster areas as of late last week.
Mr. Arveson said the state department had convened meetings with many of the affected superintendents to survey school needs and to provide information about applying for federal assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
He said he and Gov. Edwin W. Edwards had urged residents and government officials in hard-hit areas to test food and water, and to test public buildings for structural damage.
Local officials said, however, that there appeared to be no tainted water in even the most damaged areas and that spoiled school-cafeteria food had been disposed of.
In St. Mary Parish, which includes Morgan City and Patterson, all 26 schools sustained some damage, according to Lloyd Dressel, the assistant superintendent for business affairs. Over all, he said, initial damage estimates for the district, which serves about 12,000 students, range from $5 million to $15 million.
Now, Mr. Dressel said, the district is trying to figure out how to resume classes.
At one Patterson school damaged in the storm, for instance, he said, the district is contemplating renting a church hall for some classes and using the school's library and audio-visual room for others.
High schools in Patterson and Berwick, which had been used as shelters during the storm, had their roofs blown off, causing cafeteria damage and severe flooding.
'Please Help Us'
Principal Jerry Cunningham and his wife, Anna, spent the night at a middle school in Morgan City that lost part of its roof.
"I stayed under a table the whole night,'' Ms. Cunningham said. "I prayed the whole night. My husband said all he heard that night was, 'Oh, Lord Jesus, please help us.''
Classes in St. Mary Parish schools, as well as in other parts of southern Louisiana, had not resumed as of late last week. School officials said they hoped to open school on Sept. 8.
St. Mary Parish teachers were called in last Thursday to survey the damage to their classrooms and to help get their schools ready for business. Those unreachable by phone--many lines had been knocked down and an estimated 250 parish families were left homeless as a result of the storm--were sought through newspaper, television, and radio announcements.
Mr. Dressel said he has no idea how many students will report for the first day of school.
"A lot of them moved out, and how many are coming back, we don't
know,'' he said. "The school population is a question mark.''
The Game Goes On
Schools in other parishes were severely damaged as well. In nearby Iberia Parish, schools sustained more than $8 million in damage, according to Sonny Baudry, an assistant superintendent. Twelve of 32 schools were severely damaged, he said.
Mr. Baudry said that schools were scheduled to reopen on Sept. 8 but that it remained unclear the extent of loss of curriculum materials, textbooks, and computers.
A committee of school employees is devising a new school calendar and exploring ways to meet the state's mandate of 175 instructional days a year, Mr. Baudry said.
In St. Mary Parish, schools will add 30 minutes to each school day to make up the expected loss of nine instructional days.
Meanwhile, residents are making due as best they can. Jeanrette High School in Iberia Parish lost its roof and will not reopen until this week. But a football game scheduled for last Friday had not been called off.
"Fortunately, we're on the road for the next two weeks,'' Principal David Hills said.
Judy Lapeyrouse, a French teacher who coaches the cheerleading squad, has been holding practice at her house. "I think everybody is ready to get back to normal, but it's not going to be normal when we get back,'' she said.
Officials said it is difficult to determine how many children were left homeless by the storm.
At least some children remained in shelters late last week. Carol Davis, a teacher in Terrebonne Parish, where schools reopened on Aug. 31 after a four-day hiatus, said 27 children remained in shelters as of late last week.
Of the students who have returned to school, she said: "The children were a little uneasy when they came back. Sometimes their thoughts are elsewhere.''
"They go through some tension, and it's hard in the beginning to get their attention and to get them to concentrate,'' Ms. Davis said, "but that doesn't last long.''
Staff Writer Lonnie Harp also contributed to this story.