As Hurricane Irma Lashes Florida, Educators and Schools Offer Refuge

By Denisa R. Superville — September 10, 2017 8 min read
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School districts across a wide swath of the southeastern U.S. remained shuttered on Monday as Hurricane Irma pounded Florida with ferocious winds and heavy rains and continued its march north.

As of late Sunday, more than 2.3 million people in Florida remained without power. And with the effects from the storm—downgraded late Sunday to a Category 2 hurricane—expected to linger into the coming week, school officials from various Florida districts said it will take some time to decide when to reopen.

Many Florida school districts that shut down in advance of the storm are likely to remain closed at least through Tuesday, and, in some cases, the entire week. Some have no power. Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, also has a boil water advisory.

And with about 6.5 million people across the state ordered to evacuate their homes, it’s unclear when most will return to the state, their communities, and their homes. But for many Floridians, schools across the state were sheltering them from Irma.

Mark Porter, the superintendent of the Monroe County school district, said in an interview that he’s really worried about some staffers who stayed behind in the Keys, where the storm made landfall as Category 4 hurricane shortly after 9 a.m. Sunday. He had lost contact with them early Sunday.

“We are really kind of in the dark right now, awaiting word,” said Porter, who evacuated to the northeastern part of the state before the storm hit. “They were in the right places to be sheltered from the storm. Our buildings are constructed to some pretty extreme engineering requirements, so they have to be, generally speaking, in some of the safest buildings in the Keys.”

He has been in touch with the sheriff’s office and had not yet heard of any major damage, giving him some level of confidence that his staff was OK.

The Middle Keys, home to Marathon and Big Pine, appeared to have been hardest hit in the storm, he said. Three schools—Marathon Middle High School and Stanley Switlik Elementary School in Marathon and Big Pine Academy, a charter school in Big Pine Key—could potentially be damaged, he said.

Marathon was a “refuge of last resort” for local residents who chose not to evacuate and a Monroe County school board member posted a photo on Facebook showing flooding in the school’s parking lot.

The county is expected to bring in supplies, including medical and water, conduct inspections, and begin to make repairs on Monday, he said.

In Miami, Schools Not Likely to Reopen This Week

When Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho announced on Tuesday that he was shutting down schools, the county was in the path to take a direct hit from the storm. But the storm changed course, veering to the state’s western coast.

Still, there was widespread flooding in Miami, and wind gusts up to 100 miles per hour. The storm knocked out power to 75 percent of buildings.

“I think there was an evolution of hope when the hurricane shifted westward and Miami-Dade stopped being a potential target for direct contact,” he said in an interview Sunday. “There was a collective sigh of relief across our entire community. But that was quickly replaced by the fact that even though we did not sustain a direct hit, we felt very much hurricane-strength conditions... I have been able to keep my eyes on the coast, and at one point the ocean and the bay water actually overran the city, so the streets of downtown Miami became canals...”

Preliminary reports indicated that the basic infrastructure survived the storm, he said, though some of the 42 schools that are serving as shelters lost power.

Carvalho said it’s likely schools won’t open this week. County officials are expected to lift a curfew at 7 a.m. Monday, providing the first opportunity for district workers to assess buildings.

“The flooding and the lack of electricity are probably going to be two of the biggest challenges associated with our ability to reopen schools,” he said.

In Tampa, which was not in the storm’s initial path, Hillsborough County district Superintendent Jeff Eakins said the district prepared as best it could for a Category 4 hurricane. Forty-five of the district’s schools are being used as shelters. And the school district reported Sunday night that it was sheltering nearly 30,000 evacuees.

When the storm was forecast to head toward the southeast, the district decided to close Thursday and Friday of last week to prepare to host evacuees from those areas.

Instead, as the storm changed course and headed straight for Tampa, the shelters became needed for their own community.

“We were prepared no matter which side of the state the hurricane ultimately made landfall,” Eakins said on Sunday, a few hours before the storm was expected to make hit Tampa. “That’s our responsibility as a school district—to open up our doors, to make sure that everyone’s safe, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Last week, district staff readied buildings by removing projectiles, removing pets from schools, and raising equipment to higher off the floor in case there was flooding.

“We were good to go no matter what happened with the hurricane,” he said. “It’s prophetic, but we did that because it turned out that’s exactly what we needed to do, and we were ready no matter what happened.”

As the storm approached, his mind was on ensuring the district would help ensure that the community and parents were taken care of, he said.

“I want our families and our employees across this community to be safe,” he said. “We are a huge impact on this community, both educationally and economically, and we know it’s important for us to take the very best care of people right now.”

Given the magnitude of the storm, and coming so soon after Hurricane Harvey left a wide swath of destruction in southeastern Texas, both Eakins and Carvalho said they provided resources to their parents and guardians to talk to their children about the storm and the signs to look for to detect whether children are in emotional distress.

Principals Oversee Shelters

By late Saturday evening, Bernie Osborn, a principal in Miami-Dade, had served two 12-hour shifts as a shelter manager at North Miami Beach Senior High School, where about 1,200 people were riding out the storm. It was his third time serving as a shift commander during a storm, and he was one of the hundreds of school staff across the state—from custodians, to assistant principals, to cafeteria workers who were manning shelters.

The shelter had a mix of people, from locals to tourists vacationing in South Beach who had evacuated. And he did his best to make everyone comfortable. He helped a German tourist find other vacationers from his home country. He encouraged evacuees to do the wave while they waited for breakfast to add some levity. And joked with other tourists that they should give the shelter a top rating on Trip Advisor.

“You have some that are very anxious, some that have been through it before,” he said. “Some that are sickly and need assistance. You have a good snapshot of the community. As educators and as community leaders it’s our responsibility to reassure them, which is something that I did not go to college for—but we embrace it.”

He drew from his experience as a principal.

“I wear many hats on my job, it’s like a chameleon—you are changing colors all the time,” he said. “Running a school building and running a shelter is sort of like the same thing; it’s just that you are dealing with all adults... and you are maintaining a basic living condition for them, where you are keeping in mind that they have to be treated with dignity and respect as well as provided a safe environment....We do that for the kids, but it’s a safe learning environment.”

Even as he manned the shelter and prepared his home in Broward County for the storm, he said he was also worried about his students at John F. Kennedy Middle School and how they might be impacted by the storm.

“We are a Title 1 [high poverty] school,” he said. “My students don’t have a lot as it is. I am worried that their resources will be drained. We have a great staff at JFK Middle, and whatever we have to do to assist our families, we are going to do it.”

JoAnn Cantlupe, a magnet coordinator at South Plantation High School in Broward County, rode out the storm at home with her husband, Richard Cantlupe, also a Broward County educator, and her 91-year-old mother-in-law.

By Sunday afternoon, the Cantlupes had lost power as the wind whipped outside and snapped palm fronds and rattled doors.

With no electricity, they watched news on the internet and tried to conserve their cell phone batteries. But while they worried about the safety of their home, Cantlupe also had her school and her students on her mind.

Her school has a robust animal science and marine biology program, along with a host of indoor and outdoor aquariums. During the last storm, the school lost all the fish in one of the aquariums after one of the tanks cracked and water seeped through, she said.

“I’m sure the marine biology teachers are nervous right now,” she said. “It’s thousands of dollars of live coral and specimen and fish. You just don’t have enough funding to replace that.”

Her principal created a text message group and posted continuous updates to the staff.

“That’s been really nice,” she said. “Some staff members have been reporting what’s going on in their little towns in the county, so you get an idea of who is doing what. That has been very reassuring.”

Photo captions:

Families seek shelter from Hurricane Irma at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, Fla., on Sunday.

Families at Cimino Elementary School in Valrico, Fla., as they seek shelter from Hurricane Irma.

Photos courtesy Hillsborough County Schools.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.