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Disasters of the Past

September 02, 2005 4 min read

Here are examples of the impact on schools from previous hurricanes and other natural disasters.

2004: HURRICANE CHARLEY

Areas Hit: Florida, South Carolina

Last year was a bad one for hurricanes, with Florida suffering four, including Charley. The storm caused 10 American deaths and caused an estimated $15 billion in damages, making it the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history.

Most Florida districts lost only a few days of class time, but some systems were closed for a total of nearly three full weeks of classes. Gov. Jeb Bush signed a series of executive orders allowing schools flexibility on the required 180-day school schedule, teacher contracts, and other state laws. Districts also asked for leniency in other areas, including state testing and accountability requirements. The state granted some extensions for the testing. Some districts asked that they not be rated under the state accountability program in 2004. The state responded by creating a “hurricane grade appeal” process, in addition to the normal appeals process, for schools that met certain criteria. A successful appeal would require, among other criteria, that the district show that the hurricanes directly contributed to a lower school rating.

1999: HURRICANE FLOYD

Areas Hit: Much of the East Coast, starting in North Carolina

Floyd took a heavy toll, with 56 U.S. deaths and damages of $5.8 billion, but it may be memorable to some educators as an example of overreaction.

More than 2 million students missed school because of closures for at least part of the week of the September storm, which was especially notable for its heavy rains, leading to flash floods. But a few days later, some school leaders debated whether it had been right to shut their doors so early, since many areas did not see any serious problems. Still, some places, such as North Carolina and New Jersey, suffered substantial flooding.

1994: NORTHRIDGE EARTHQUAKE

Areas Hit: Southern California

The costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, causing damages estimated at some $50 billion, wasn’t a hurricane, but the earthquake that hit Southern California on Jan. 17, 1994. The earthquake measured 6.6 on the Richter scale and caused 57 deaths.

It also hit area school systems hard, with schools in 43 California districts damaged.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, early estimates suggested half of schools were harmed, at a cost of $700 million in 1994 dollars. Classes there resumed after being closed six days. But some repairs were slow in coming. Three years later, major renovations at one Los Angeles high school, for example, were on hold pending negotiations between local and federal officials. Among the points of dispute were whether to rebuild the school’s gymnasium or simply fix it.

1992: HURRICANE ANDREW

Areas Hit: Florida, Louisiana

The costliest hurricane in U.S. history, Andrew caused damages of $43.7 billion and led to 23 U.S. deaths. It was rated a Category 5 hurricane, the most severe.

Nearly all of the 287 schools in the Miami-Dade County, Fla., district sustained some damage. The public school system opened schools two weeks late. U.S. Army, Navy, and National Guard troops, as well as district personnel, helped with repairs. Ten schools were deemed too badly damaged to open. Their students were reassigned to other schools. Some 3,000 students enrolled in nearby Broward County schools. In Louisiana, schools opened as much as 11 days late.

1989: HURRICANE HUGO

Areas Hit: U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, North Carolina

Hugo caused 21 deaths on the U.S. mainland, plus five in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. U.S. damages were estimated at $12.3 billion.

The hurricane caused tens of millions of dollars of damage to hundreds of schools in the Carolinas, and forced more than 200,000 students to miss some school days. In Charleston, S.C., alone, school damage was estimated at $50 million in 1989 dollars.

Disaster assistance to schools was poor, a federal study found two years later. Districts affected, as well as California districts affected by the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, received disaster aid late or not at all because of a lack of coordination by federal and state agencies, the U.S. General Accounting Office concluded in a 1991 report.

Areas Hit: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio

1969: HURRICANE CAMILLE

Camille, a Category 5 hurricane, was the strongest hurricane to directly strike the United States in the 20th century. It caused 256 U.S. deaths and $8.9 billion in damage, much of it in the Gulf Coast regions hard hit by Hurricane Katrina. Camille has the unusual distinction of getting caught up in the debate over the desegregation of Southern schools. The New York Times reported in August of 1969 on disagreements within the federal government over whether 16 segregated school districts in Mississippi should get money to repair and rebuild facilities.

Note: The “Areas Hit” category lists only states struck by hurricane-force winds or an earthquake. Hurricane cost estimates include damage to areas beyond those encountering hurricane-force winds. All damage estimates are in inflation-adjusted dollars, except where otherwise noted.

SOURCES: National Hurricane Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Southern California Earthquake Center, University of Southern California; Education Week

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