From South Carolina to Virginia, Schools Batten Down Ahead of Hurricane Florence

By Denisa R. Superville — September 12, 2018 3 min read
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More than 800,000 students from North Carolina’s Outer Banks to Newport News, Va., are out of school as districts shut their doors and battened down in anticipation of Hurricane Florence.

The storm, which was downgraded to a Category 3 early Wednesday afternoon, is expected to hit the Carolina coast on Thursday night or early Friday morning. The National Hurricane Center warns of a “life-threatening storm” surge and heavy rainfall to the Carolinas.

Florence could dump between 20 to 30 inches of rain in coastal North Carolina and up to 40 inches in some parts of both North and South Carolina. Such heavy rainfall could result in catastrophic flooding, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The storm has shifted southwest, and it is expected to have a greater impact on South Carolina than earlier thought. Florence is expected to slow down and stall as it approaches the Carolinas and linger over the weekend. South Carolina officials are asking residents who live inland, away from the coast, to prepare for heavy rainfalls and flash floods.

Up to three million residents in both states could lose power, according to The New York Times.

Some school districts announced as early as Monday that they were closing for the rest of the week. And South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster ordered schools closed in 26 counties and the evacuation of about a million people from coastal areas. McMaster lifted part of the order on school closures in some of those counties on Tuesday.

While coastal districts announced early closures, some inland school districts in North Carolina were still open as of Wednesday. Students in Pitt County, Chapel Hill-Carrboro, and Durham are in class today. All of those districts are expected to be closed on Thursday and Friday, with the exception of Durham, which will have classes on Thursday but will release students early.

While some districts were criticized for delaying the decision to close, a spokesman for North Carolina’s department of public instruction told the New York Times that the districts had to consider a number of things before making the decision.

“You don’t want to cancel schools too early,” the spokesman, Drew Elliot, told the paper. “On the other side, you need to cancel early enough so that people can make plans and evacuate, if that’s what they need to do. And if you cancel too broadly and too early and then the forecast is wrong, you get the ‘cry wolf’ syndrome of, are they going to heed the call next time.”

In addition to following the hurricane’s track, districts take a series of steps before deciding when to close, including authorizing emergency spending, ensuring that school buses have gas, and making sure that payroll is lined up so that staff can get paid even if schools are closed for an extended period. (Read how Orange County Schools in Florida made the decision to close last year as Hurricane Irma headed toward the state.)

Most districts in Hurricane Florence’s path are closed through Friday, with schools in Virginia—including Chesapeake, Virginia Beach City, Newport News and Portsmouth—shuttered “until further notice.” Norfolk public schools are also closed.

The last Category 4 hurricane to hit the Carolinas was Hurricane Hugo on Sept. 21-22, 1989.

South Carolina schools sustained an estimated $24 million in damages during the storm, according to GAO report, while North Carolina schools suffered $1.8 million in damages, Education Week reported.

Schools in both states reported that they faced delays in receiving assistance from the education department to help them rebuild. A year after the storm, 48 South Carolina districts and seven North Carolina districts that applied for help from the Education Department had not received any of the money they sought, according to the report.

Photo credit: Russell Meadows boards up his neighbor’s home as a projection of Hurricane Florence is broadcast on a television inside in Morehead City, N.C., on the evening of Sept. 11.

--David Goldman/AP

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