Florida Governor Shuts Down Schools as Hurricane Irma Looms

By Denisa R. Superville — September 08, 2017 6 min read
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With Hurricane Irma making a beeline for Florida, after leaving a trail of wreckage in the Caribbean, Gov. Rick Scott has ordered all of the state’s public schools, colleges, and universities closed Friday through Monday.

“Floridians are facing a life-threatening storm in Hurricane Irma, and every family must prepare to evacuate,” Scott said in a statement.

“Our state’s public schools serve a vital role in our communities as shelters for displaced residents and staging areas for hurricane recovery efforts. Closing public schools, state colleges, state universities and state offices will provide local and state emergency officials the flexibility necessary to support shelter and emergency response efforts,” he said.

The governor’s order came as many districts in south and central Florida had already decided to close ahead of Hurricane Irma, which was downgraded Friday from a Category 5 to a Category 4 storm. Every Florida county is expected to feel some impact from the storm, which is forecast to make landfall on Sunday, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Hurricane Irma is one of the strongest storms recorded in the Atlantic. At its peak, it packed sustained winds of up to 185 mph.

Not leaving anything to chance, schools in Monroe County—home to Key West—have been closed since Wednesday when the county started to evacuate visitors and residents.

Miami-Dade County, which weather models show to be in the storm’s path, decided earlier in the week to close schools beginning on Thursday, along with districts in Brevard and Broward counties. Mandatory evacuation orders are in place for low-lying areas in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Schools in some of those districts will be used as shelters, but the early closures also gave families time to evacuate if they chose to do so.

Hurricane Irma threatens Florida just two weeks after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, leaving thousands of damaged homes and schools in its wake as result of heavy flooding and strong winds. More than 1 million Texas students attend districts affected by Harvey.

Barbara Jenkins, the superintendent of central Florida’s Orange County schools, said the district had planned to close at the end of the school day on Friday and stay closed on Monday when Orange County was expected to experience some of the effects of the storm. The district’s operations team had been meeting with the Orange County Office of Emergency Management and monitoring the weather models all week.

The governor made the call that overrode the district’s decision—an unusual one since local districts normally decide whether to close depending on where they are in the storm’s path, she said.

“We take hurricanes really seriously,” Jenkins said. “We have pretty sound systems to make sure that we are thorough in our preparation for storms when they are headed our way.”

Part of the equation is balancing students’ welfare and ensuring that instructional time is not lost if the hurricane changes course.

“You can imagine that in a state like Florida there have been days, in years past, where the districts called off school and then the storm was diverted somehow and [students] did not actually need to be out of school,” she said. “We try to be pretty conservative—err on the side of safety for our students, but also try not to immediately shut down school because there might be something in the vicinity.”

“It’s easy for me to talk about how deliberative we were because we are not on the coast,” Jenkins said. “I’d be a lot more anxious if I were in Miami. ...Being in central Florida, we could see the models and whether or not there would be an impact.”

The district shut down briefly last October after Hurricane Matthew. While Matthew did not hit the state directly, heavy winds still caused significant damage in the state, though the impact was “minimal” in Orange County schools.

“I don’t know that we would be so fortunate this time around,” she said. “Folks are a little bit more anxious about it.”

About 11 of Orange County’s 188 or so schools are slated to be used as evacuation shelters and another nine could be used as secondary sites, Jenkins said.

Because principals and teachers were expecting to come in to school on Friday, Jenkins said principals will be asked to come in and take care of “wrap up activities,” and teachers can come in to pick up personal effects that they had left behind.

Preparing for Irma in Jacksonville

Though the Duval County district is at the opposite end of the state from Miami, where the storm was expected to make landfall, it planned to dismiss schools Friday, even before the statewide order, Superintendent Patricia Willis said.

Eleven of the county’s 198 schools opened as storm shelters Friday after school administrators and county emergency personnel worked into the night Thursday delivering cots, paper goods, and food supplies to prepare them for up to 2,000 people.

“We are a state that sees storms. It’s become a part of who we are,” Willis said. “We see our community really rally around us. Our number one goal is to make sure our community is safe.”

While Florida residents are accustomed to storms, coverage of the scale and scope of Harvey may have caused more people to heed advisories earlier than they may have otherwise, she said.

By Friday afternoon, a few hundred people had shuffled into the empty schools to set up camp, Willis said. Most of the early arrivals were from low lying areas in the county under mandatory evacuation orders, like Jacksonville Beach. Willis said the shelters would likely fill over the weekend, taking in residents from counties farther away who’ve been driving to get out of the storm’s path.

“The Interstate is starting to slow down now and, as the storm gets closer, people will probably start to pull off,” she said.

It’s been at least five years since Duval County schools have opened as shelters, but, in a state familiar with hurricanes and tropical storms, staff were pretty familiar with the procedures, she said. The 11 buildings, spaced throughout the county, include some special sites for people with higher levels of medical need, like those who require oxygen, and some pet-friendly shelters, Willis said. Each is staffed by police from the district-run police department, workers from the Red Cross, and principals who volunteer their time to run the sites, even as their own families prepare for the storm.

After the storm hits and electricity is restored, school officials expected the shelters to clear out in a day or two. Schools will reopen after the buildings get a thorough cleaning, she said.

Paulita Kundid, left and her brother, Mike Kundid, board up their apartment building ahead of Hurricane Irma in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Sept. 8.

--David Goldman/AP

People at a Red Cross shelter set up at North Miami Beach Senior High School go through a lunch line in North Miami Beach, Fla., on Sept. 8. The school was many throughout the area set up to house those seeking refuge from Hurricane Irma.

--Wilfredo Lee/AP

Staff Writer Evie Blad contributed to this report.

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