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Published in Print: September 22, 1999, as Schools Shut Down As Floyd Hits East Coast

Schools Shut Down As Floyd Hits East Coast

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Hurricane Floyd evicted about 2 million students from their schools last week, bringing driving winds, heavy rains, and flash floods to much of the East Coast.

But by week's end, the storm's diminishing force left school leaders in some areas debating whether they had made the right call to close doors so early.

Schools closed from South Florida to New York as the sprawling hurricane swept north. As children in the Carolinas and Florida fled with their families, many schools were pressed into service as emergency shelters.

Floyd didn't bring the destruction of past storms such as 1992's Andrew or Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Instead, it turned north and weakened slightly, keeping its most deadly winds away from the coastline.

In most areas, reports of damage were slight as the storm moved up the coast. But many educators said the dire forecasts as the storm approached had left them little choice but to shut down.

"To be fair, this was a huge storm," said Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va. "I think everybody was just erring on the side of caution."

The District of Columbia schools and districts in Washington's Maryland and Virginia suburbs were among those that closed last Thursday.

Meanwhile, schools began reopening in Florida by Thursday, and children returned to school on Friday in parts of Georgia and South Carolina away from the coast.

Along some coastal areas, schools remained closed into Friday. Power outages were common from the Carolinas to New England, and many schools in the Southeast remained open as shelters while governors pondered whether to allow everyone's return.

Tough Call

"It's the worst decision you have to make," said Mr. Houston, a former district superintendent in California, Arizona, and New Jersey. "Half the people really get angry if you close, particularly those with child-care problems. The other half get upset if you leave school open, and they say you're endangering their children."

Almost every South Carolina school within 100 miles of the beaches was closed, as educators recalled the destruction left by Hurricane Hugo 10 years ago. That storm devastated Charleston and other coastal areas and caused substantial damage inland in Charlotte and Columbia.

But Floyd passed with only the symptoms of severe thunderstorms, and many schools reopened Friday.

Though some administrators may have overreacted, Jim Foster, a spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Education, said no apologies were in order.

"These are precautions you have to take. It could have been a real mess," Mr. Foster said. "You don't take chances with people's lives."

Reaction Time

Farther north, administrators made the call to close some schools in New Jersey two days before the storm would reach them in weakened form.

"That, I definitely think, was premature," said Bill Adams, the superintendent of the Salem County, N.J., vocational and technical schools. His schools serve about 1,000 students from several districts about 50 miles inland.

Emergency-preparedness workers had warned schools of possible 60 mph winds on Friday, Mr. Adams said.

They also feared the storm might shoot directly up the Delaware River, causing flooding or damage far inland that could force schools to be used as shelters.

He added, though, that a wait-and-see plan is no good if conditions worsen during the school day; parents won't stand for children being sent home when adults may not be available to care for them.

"There's just no way with elementary-age and disabled children," Mr. Adams said. "With child care today, especially, the earlier warning or notice they get, it gives them time to react."

Vol. 19, Issue 3, Page 3

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