Rita Closes Many Texas, Louisiana Schools
Not as potent as feared, hurricane still wreaks havoc.
School districts in southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas were still struggling to assess damage, make repairs, and reopen nearly a week after Hurricane Rita swept ashore.
The storm skirted some Texas districts that had girded themselves for damage, such as the 210,000-student Houston school system and the 9,100-student Galveston district. Those districts resumed classes last week after closing for a few days to support the evacuation of their cities’ residents.
But as Rita made landfall on Sept. 24 farther east than was first predicted, sparing some densely populated areas, the hurricane shattered communities in Louisiana’s Cameron, Calcasieu, and Vermilion parishes, all parts of the state’s bayou region. And it pounded the Texas cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur as it traversed a path roughly up the Texas-Louisiana border. As of late last week, more than 140,000 students remained out of school in dozens of affected districts in both states.
Many superintendents resorted to posting messages on their own, or state, Web sites to get news about school status out to employees and families who dispersed widely to escape the hurricane. In the 9,100-student Vermilion Parish, La., district, seven of 20 schools suffered heavy damage or were demolished, the district reported on the Louisiana state education department’s Web site.
Others left more personal messages.
“I know that this is a difficult time for each of you,” Jude W. Theriot, the superintendent of the 33,000-student Calcasieu Parish, La., school district, told school employees on the state agency’s site. “I want you to know that your jobs are safe. We will rebuild and we will reopen. … [Y]ou do not need to look for other employment.”
Ready to Repair
Superintendent Beverly Gail Krohn posted a similar note on the Web site of her district in Nederland, Texas, about 100 miles east of Houston.
“We are facing a difficult time ahead of us with many unknown major decisions and significant adjustments,” she said. “Stay safe, and keep your spirits up.”
Reached by cellphone in McKinney, Texas, near Dallas, Ms. Krohn said that the buildings in her 5,200-student district suffered wind damage, but appeared to be free of flooding. Contractors were ready to enter the area and start school repairs, but they were being held back by officials who have limited access to some communities, she said.
“We’re hoping to have school open in three weeks or so,” Ms. Krohn said, adding that it would depend on how soon workers can begin repairs. “We’ll be all right when we get back. We have a great bunch of faculty members and staff.”
The grim example of Hurricane Katrina some four weeks earlier meant Texas was on a heightened state of alert, which may have saved lives when Rita hit, said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, the spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.
“We were fortunate in a way,” she said. “We already had a lot of hurricane-related services and policies thought out.”
Ten deaths have been linked directly to Rita so far, compared to more than 1,000 killed by Katrina, which landed its strongest blows in Louisiana and Mississippi. However, every school in a Texas region bordering Louisiana was closed last week, with no date scheduled for reopening. About 84,000 public school students are served in that region.
The Texas Education Agency has told school districts that they will not have to make up days lost to hurricane closures. But the effects of Hurricane Rita have raised many questions that the state hoped to answer in a teleconference with superintendents on Sept. 30, Ms. Ratcliffe said.
Dubravka Romano, the associate executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards, oversees the TASB Risk Management Pool, a self-insurance policy that covers about 60 percent of the state’s school districts. Late last week, the insurance adjusters had received claims from about 30 districts, many of them for wind damage.
“We have had one adjuster on the ground who has seen a district and said it has been devastated,” said Ms. Romano, referring to the 1,600-student Buna district, about 120 miles northeast of Houston. Other claims could be for more minor damage, she said, but she expects damage to worsen the longer it takes to secure buildings against the elements.
She said Rita affected Texas schools far inland from the Gulf of Mexico.
“This was an unusual storm in that it wasn’t just the coastal areas that got hit,” Ms. Romano said. “The good news for us is that it moved fairly quickly.”
A Second Challenge
The physical damage of Rita was, for some districts, the second hurricane-caused challenge they’ve had to meet in the past month. With Hurricane Katrina’s disastrous strike on the New Orleans area, many Louisianans headed west to Texas. Beaumont was one of the places where many decided to stop and rebuild their lives.
Jacinta White, a former New Orleans public school teacher, was just preparing for what would have been her first day of work in a Beaumont public school when Hurricane Rita forced her to evacuate once again. Now, she and her family are in Dallas, waiting for news on when they can return to Beaumont and she can start work at the 21,000-student district.
The hotel where they were staying in Beaumont has been demolished by Hurricane Rita, Ms. White said, along with some of the belongings she left there. The hotel vouchers she was given by the Red Cross are to expire Oct. 7. After that point, Ms. White and her family will have to find somewhere else to live.
Despite her own worries, “my heart just goes out to the people in Beaumont,” said Ms. White, a special education kindergarten teacher. “They tried to help us so much. Beautiful people. Beautiful people, from every walk of life.”
Vol. 25, Issue 06, Pages 3,11