In Harvey's Wake, a Rough Road Ahead for Schools

The football field at C.E. King High School in Houston is covered by floodwaters from the storm.
The football field at C.E. King High School in Houston is covered by floodwaters from the storm.
—David J. Phillip/AP

Addressing physical and emotional damage the first priority

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Educators in school districts serving about 1 million students along the Texas coast are picking up the pieces after Hurricane Harvey pummeled the area during what was supposed to be the first days of the new school year.

Some of the roughly 220 affected school districts still planned to open right after Labor Day, others in a matter of weeks, but for school administrators who have survived other devastating natural disasters, they know the road to normalcy can take years.

In the immediate aftermath of such a natural disaster, several school leaders who've experienced similar events said the immediate priority should be making sure students, teachers, and school staff are safe and sound.

"First, you must account for all of your students and staff members," said Kerry Sachetta, the assistant superintendent for operations in the Joplin, Mo., school district, where in May 2011 he was principal of the district's sole high school when it was destroyed by a tornado that ripped through the community. "You have to first take care of your own situation before you can help someone else."

Several superintendents with such experience listed some key initial moves to make:

  • enacting an emergency plan calling on employees to help lead;
  • communicating with the community constantly;
  • accounting for students and employees;
  • helping students and staff cope with trauma;
  • assessing damages to facilities; and
  • acting as a community resource for anyone unsure where to go or what to do.

The tornado in Joplin killed 161 people, including two students from Sachetta's campus, and another 1,000 were injured. Joplin's school district had a team at each school trained in search and rescue, known as Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, as well as for security, medical operations, psychological first aid, and family reunification.

How to Help Schools and Teachers Affected by Hurricane Harvey

DonorsChoose, a website that helps teachers fundraise for classroom projects, has set up a Hurricane Harvey Recovery Fund. The fund “will help teachers rebuild and restock their classrooms with materials like books, furniture, classroom supplies, technology, and therapy resources,” according to the site. Go to hurricane-harvey

The National Education Association Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the teachers’ union, is taking contributions for public school teachers and their families who’ve been affected personally by the storm. “Estimates are that as many as one-third of NEA members in Texas have been impacted or will be in the days to come,” the page states.

The American Federation of Teachers also has a disaster-relief fund set up, and the Texas AFT is accepting money for members in need as well.

Charity Navigator has a list of groups that are accepting donations for the storm (and ratings for each one).

Although school was not in session when the tornado hit, Sachetta said, the training helped school employees take on leadership in each of the damaged schools. Staff members reviewed class rosters and made calls, communicated with students on Facebook, and visited homes until all students were accounted for. They also kept a log of students who had lost homes and had loved ones who were injured or lost so they could make plans to get them immediate help.

Robert Romines had just been hired as the incoming schools chief in Moore, Okla., in 2013, a week before a tornado killed 25 people there.

"It is hard for me to watch [the Harvey coverage] simply because we have been there before, although on a different level and circumstance, as the scope of Harvey spanned a much larger space and lingered for days," said Romines.

Seven of the victims in Romines' district died inside one elementary school, which was demolished, and three other school sites were destroyed or significantly damaged, a total of $51 million in losses for the community south of Oklahoma City tormented for decades by tornadoes.

"In our case, the tornado came and went so we were able to get back in there quickly and see the damage, whereas it's taking longer for many in Texas because of the rain and flooding," Romines said. "What school leaders, teachers, and students need to immediately remember is that they are not alone and it's OK to accept help. It's time for the rest of the community near and far to rally around them, and they will, as we have seen time and again in these disasters."

Rallying After Trauma

Harvey's impact stretched some 300 miles along the Gulf Coast, from Corpus Christi, close to where Harvey made landfall, to as far north as Beaumont. Many districts are still working on assessing their properties to see if people can even come on campus, and many in the urban core are landlocked, so may have a harder time finding space elsewhere to resume classes quickly.

Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 50 inches of water over Houston, which has the state's largest school district, after first hitting the Southeast shore of Texas in Rockport with 130-mile-per-hour winds.


See Also: Students Displaced by Hurricane Protected by Federal Law on Homeless


The Houston Independent School District, which serves about 216,000 students with 31,000 employees, is in the heart of a metro area that's home to about 17 school districts.

But Houston Superintendent Richard Carranza said those borders didn't mean much as Harvey loomed above, as each district has been working across boundaries to help families in need. Superintendents have checked in with each other on daily conference calls to compare notes and discuss what to do next.

He said the consortium's main concerns have been the impact on the students and employees and their families. Carranza said his district is planning on bringing in crisis counselors to help students traumatized by the storm and the aftermath once the water dries up, and will extend those services to employees as well.

"They have lost everything and [are] coming to work and expected to provide support and encouragement to students," Carranza said. "Even with the best emergency preparedness plans, the true impact of a situation of this magnitude is something that no one can really plan for."

As of last week, the district planned to begin classes Sept. 11.

Sailors from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28 rescue 14 people and four dogs at Pine Forest Elementary School, in Vidor, Texas. The shelter required evacuation after flood waters from Hurricane Harvey reached its grounds.
Sailors from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28 rescue 14 people and four dogs at Pine Forest Elementary School, in Vidor, Texas. The shelter required evacuation after flood waters from Hurricane Harvey reached its grounds.
—U.S. Navy via AP

Paul Vallas, who arrived in New Orleans in May 2007, nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina destroyed close to 80 percent of the school system's buildings, understands the longer-term impact. But there are major differences between Harvey's destruction in Texas, particularly in the Greater Houston area, and the damages wrought by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, he said.

New Orleans' school buildings were much older and more neglected than Houston's, and some two-thirds of the schools were academically failing, Vallas said. The city's economy was not as diverse as Houston's. And, geographically, Harvey's devastation in Texas covers a much larger area.

All of those things will likely give Houston a relatively stronger starting point than New Orleans, he said. But given that so many counties and school districts were affected by Harvey, the overall recovery in Texas could take a lot longer and lead to uneven results if those efforts are not centralized.

"With Katrina, it virtually wiped out an entire system in a very dense geographic area," he said.

Immediate Steps

Throughout the process, superintendents said that communication is key to getting the district back on track.

And getting students back in a classroom, even if in a makeshift space, will help jump-start the recovery.

"The faster you can get it back to normal—and normal to me was kids going to school at the prescribed time and coming home at the prescribed time—the easier it is for people to get through it," said Frank Scarafile, the superintendent of the Little Ferry school district in New Jersey.

In late October 2012, most of the surrounding town was underwater after a tidal surge from the Hackensack River flooded low-lying areas. The floodwaters caused nearly $6 million in damages to the district's two buildings, making one entire building unusable. The district shut down for two weeks.

One of the first things Scarafile did after assessing the damage was to scout neighboring towns in search of districts that had empty or underused buildings to use as classroom space.

School Leaders Share Insights for Tackling Challenges Ahead

When PAUL VALLAS took the helm of the Recovery School District in New Orleans nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina, the community was still rebuilding. Vallas said school leaders must quickly determine which students are impacted and then develop a plan to get them back to school quickly.

“That should be priority number one. You move heaven and earth to get those students back in school.”

Vallas says district leaders will also need to:
• Pay special attention to older students, who have less time to recover academically from lost schooling.
• Assess the readiness of teachers and staff.
• Assess buildings and other infrastructure to determine the extent of the damage. Come up with a timeline for repair, renovation, and reopening.
• Set up a “Command Center” and team for setting priorities around rebuilding, working with state and federal officials, and responding to anything disaster-related.


ROBERT ROMINES, the superintendent of the Moore public schools in Oklahoma, said the days ahead will test school communities’ resilience. Romines had just been hired as the incoming schools chief in the Oklahoma district a week before a tornado killed 25 people there. The devastation and loss of life are overwhelming after such events, Romines said. But it’s important to hold onto the brighter moments.

“Then suddenly a check would come in from a little kid who sold lemonade to help raise money to help us recover from somewhere far away, and you would remember how many people are rooting for you.”


In the Colorado Springs School District 11, the Waldo Canyon fire consumed acres of forestland just outside the city in June 2012, forcing many students and staff members to evacuate their homes. Superintendent NICHOLAS GLEDICH was one of them. The schools became a rallying point for the community and a staging site for 1,500 forest workers and emergency personnel. The district brought in crisis counselors and its own counseling staff to make plans for individual students. They worked with staff, providing resources to have calming conversations with students when school resumed.

“Children take their cues from adults, That’s the bottom line.”

By December, the buildings were fixed.

In Joplin, officials worked with a local construction company to retrofit an abandoned big-box store in time for the start of the next school year, adjusted schedules to make best use of the space, and worked with local leaders to find space for athletics and extracurricular activities. It took about $225 million to rebuild.

Once you get the students back in school, teachers should be encouraged to look for signs of trauma, Scarafile said.

"When you had a really bad rainstorm afterwards, their fear was that they were going to get flooded again," Scarafile said. "They were afraid. That was part of getting displaced, that was part of losing everything. There was a lot of anxiety."

Indeed, educators such as Angela Stallings, an associate superintendent for the Pasadena Independent School District near Houston, were already hearing of that from students after opening the doors of one of their high schools as an emergency shelter. The district will be offering counselors for the foreseeable future, she said. The district had earlier in the week confirmed that four Pasadena ISD students and two of their great-grand parents died after being swept away by the floodwaters while trying to evacuate.

Carol Salva, who teaches newcomer English-language development in the Spring Branch district, spent a few tense days at home with two of her children, 10 and 13, before finally deciding to evacuate.

Her neighborhood did not have an evacuation order, but her home would have been in the "path of destruction" if one of the nearby dams breached. Neighbors were evacuating, and helicopter rescues were taking place in nearby neighborhoods.

"It's just very scary to live so close to those reservoirs that you're seeing on the news," she said.

Salva finally self-evacuated three days after the storm after her two-story home lost electricity.

And not a moment too soon: The next day neighbors texted Salva photos of a kayaker paddling through the streets of her neighborhood, surveying water levels and flood damage.

Salva quickly turned her thoughts to how she would address the disaster once she returns to school. The district had already e-mailed resources, including lesson plans, to teachers on how to talk about it, she said.

Salva was especially worried about some of the newly arrived students in her school, some of whom were refugees who had recently settled in the area.

Academics Not Sole Priority

Romines, the Moore, Okla., superintendent, said that while the typical focus for school leadership usually is on academic performance, "the following year wasn't our best academically." But, after a natural disaster, mental health should become the priority, especially for communities where children may be exposed to death and destruction for the first time, he said.

"Always be understanding of the individuals you are talking to and sharing their stories," Romines said. "Our situation was unique in that we lost students during that school day. I tried to be very careful and guarded in my approach toward those parents who lost their children to not lead them to think that I could actually totally understand. I was able to send my kids to school the next school year. So I had to be patient with the healing process for those hurting the most."

School leaders also said that parents tend to rely on the school for general guidance because they are more trusting and familiar with the system. For example, Little Ferry's Scarafile appointed a staff member to act as a disaster-relief coordinator to help parents contact the right state and federal agencies for assistance. "People did not know where to turn," he said.

Related Blog

Colorado Springs School District 11 did not have physical damage in June 2012 when the Waldo Canyon fire consumed acres of forest land just outside the city, threatening a large area within the district's boundaries. But many students and staff members were forced to evacuate their homes. So was Superintendent Nicholas Gledich.

Harvey will likely displace many students for a long time, affecting not just the districts that were hit by the storm, but the districts that must grow and stretch to accommodate an influx of new children, Gledich said. Last week, the Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio districts were preparing to take in displaced students, and offers of services and support were pouring in from throughout the region.

"You know in your heart and your mind that Houston needs support and resources, but let me tell you," he said, "those other districts will need resources too."

Vol. 37, Issue 03, Pages 1, 12-13

Published in Print: September 6, 2017, as Hurricane Takes Heavy Toll on Schools
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