It's Only Natural

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Nine days after a deadly earthquake devastated their community in Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley, students at Canoga Park High School returned to classes Jan. 26.

Out on the school's athletic fields that day, nearly 700 people camped out in the rain in a Salvation Army shelter.

But inside the school, the atmosphere was warmer. There were hugs and kisses for friends and shouts of "Hey, how's your house?'' By midday, one school official reported, not a single student had sought out help in the school's counseling center.

"It's been more than a week,'' explains Nancy Delgado, the school's assistant principal. "Everybody just wants to get back to a normal routine.''

"Getting back to normal,'' however, may take a lot longer than school officials in Los Angeles would like. Experts in the field and educators who have experienced natural disasters say the emotional scars, logistical nightmares, financial problems, and red tape that follow such an event can persist long after the relief workers have departed and the television cameras have gone.

"It is not just that an earthquake or a hurricane has passed through,'' says Henry Fraind, an assistant superintendent of schools in Dade County, Fla., where Hurricane Andrew leveled entire communities in 1992. "It's what's left in its wake.''

Troubling Feelings

Little research has examined the effects a natural disaster can have on a school system or on classroom learning. However, a small but growing number of studies are beginning to document the emotional impact of violent natural events on the children who survive them.

As part of one of these studies, a team of psychologists visited schools in Berkeley County, S.C., in December 1989, three months after Hurricane Hugo slammed into the coastline of the Carolinas and tore up that community. They conducted lengthy interviews with 6,500 students between the ages of 9 and 18.

Virtually every student was still experiencing some kind of emotional stress as a result of the storm. They complained of nightmares, flashbacks to the evening the hurricane struck, fears that it would happen again, depression, and trouble concentrating on their schoolwork.

Typical of such feelings, a student from an Illinois community washed out last summer by the waters of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, writes, in a letter to a pen pal: "I don't want to sound mean, but I have been in a terrible year. So I am depressed.''

To a large degree, says Christopher Lonigan, the Florida State University researcher who conducted the South Carolina study, such symptoms are a perfectly normal part of the recovery process.

"People shouldn't think that children aren't going to be affected, and the more you talk to them about it, the better,'' adds Nathan Fox, a professor of human development and psychology at the University of Maryland.

Psychologists point out that, after all, these are children who feared for their own safety and the safety of their family members. Their homes or schools may have been destroyed or damaged. They may be living with relatives or traveling to an unfamiliar school while theirs is under repair. Their neighborhood friends, left homeless by the disaster, may have moved away. Toys or pets may have been damaged or lost.

Researchers also found that a handful of students in Berkeley County were experiencing more severe stress reactions. Psychologists actually diagnosed some 5 percent of the children and teenagers studied with posttraumatic stress disorder, a psychological condition more closely identified with Vietnam veterans. The researchers' findings are published this month in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Stress Factors

Symptoms of emotional stress may be even more pronounced and persistent in younger children. A forthcoming study from the University of Miami, for example, examined schoolchildren who experienced Hurricane Andrew. It found that as many as one-third of the 560 elementary students studied were showing "moderate to severe'' signs of posttraumatic stress disorder nearly a year after that storm struck their community.

"And these were kids from South Dade, not Homestead or Florida City where the destruction was much greater,'' says Annette La Greca, the researcher who conducted the study. "Usually after a disaster happens, there's a lot of help from all areas,'' she adds. "After a few months people go back to everyday life, and they think you're sort of over it, but you're not.''

School officials in Dade County even noticed a rash of suicide attempts in the six months after that disaster. In one case, an 8-year-old boy reportedly lay down in front of a school bus. In another, a 7-year-old boy jumped from a second-floor balcony.

Researchers say a number of factors predict how severe a child's emotional reaction to disaster will be. First and most obviously, children who were closer to the disaster--or suffered more greatly from it--will experience more emotional stress. The amount of support children get from family and friends also plays a role, as does the age of the child.

Another important factor is the degree to which a child's school life is disrupted. "We had some schools in double sessions or students were moved to another school,'' La Greca says. "Kids with more disruption to regular routines also had more stress.''

For that reason, Los Angeles school officials decided, for the most part, to avoid temporarily busing students to unfamiliar schools. Most of the school system's 640,000 students returned to their own schools when classes resumed on Jan. 25. The remaining students sat out classes for part of the week while their own schools were under repair or until one of the 200 portable bungalows the school system received could be transformed into temporary classrooms on the playgrounds or athletic fields of their damaged schools.

Educators in Los Angeles say the emotional fallout from the Jan. 17 temblor may be particularly complex for the district's Hispanic students with relatives or friends injured or killed in earthquakes in Mexico City or elsewhere in Central America. Less stringent building codes in parts of Central America have typically resulted in much greater loss of life from earthquakes there than in California.

"We're going to really have to sell those students and their families on the idea that it's safe to come back to school,'' says Michael Cherry, an 8th-grade teacher and local teachers' union official in Los Angeles.

'Blessing in Disguise'

Looking back on their own experiences with Mother Nature's violent spasms, school officials elsewhere concur that getting schools up and running was crucial to their communities' recovery.

"For the first time in whatever length of time it was, kids were able to go to a structured environment,'' says Gary Jones, the director of administrative services for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Schools in more than 14 districts in that state sustained heavy damages in floods last August.

"I'm not sure in most cases that reopening school wasn't a blessing in disguise,'' Jones continues. "Here were kids who were living in a hotel or living with Aunt Minnie or living in a car, and now they had an adult who could give them a hug or talk to them and friends to play with and things that were familiar to them.''

In the neighboring state of Illinois, Harold Baum, the superintendent of schools in the flood-drenched town of Valmeyer, recalls that the entire community pitched in after the floods to restore the school system. Townspeople dug 850 holes to sink concrete piers for the 36 portable classrooms the schools would need.

And school officials in Dade County boast that the schools became the primary social institution in their community after Hurricane Andrew hit. Teachers went into relief camps and Red Cross shelters to provide instruction and after-school activities for children. Twenty family-resource centers opened to offer a full range of services in hard-hit areas, and "Saturday academies'' helped children catch up on missed schoolwork.

The school system also secured $11.5 million in federal funds to keep schools open last summer and to offer extended library hours.

"We couldn't have kids out in the streets because there were no streets,'' says Phyllis Cohen, a deputy superintendent in the Dade County district. "There was just rubble. We had a 30-mile section with no libraries and no movie theaters.''

Cleaning Up

But finding a place to hold school is just the first of a number of headaches that school administrators face in the aftermath of disaster.

In the hours after a hurricane, earthquake, or tornado strikes, for example, school officials must decide whether to allow the school buildings left standing to serve as relief centers. That decision is not as cut and dried as it may seem.

Leland Yee, the president of the San Francisco school board, recalls that the 1989 earthquake in that city led to a tug of war between the mayor and the superintendent. "The city wanted to use the schools to deal with displaced people, and the superintendent wanted to get all the schools open for the youngsters,'' he says. As it turned out, schools were opened two days after the disaster occurred.

And in Dade County, Fraind says allowing the schools to be used as shelters created second-generation problems for the school system. "In some schools, we had 3,000 adults and children living together,'' he says. "When they left, there was urine and feces everywhere, and some of the buses were destroyed.'' Apart from the added mess, he notes, the debris left by the disaster itself takes "months and months'' to clean up.

"We had maintenance workers being asked to work 12 and 15 hours a day for the district when they didn't have a home to go to,'' says Emory Haselden, the deputy superintendent for operations in Charleston County, S.C., where Hurricane Hugo damaged 51 of 72 schools.

In addition, school officials have to figure out how to communicate with families that have no telephone service, no electricity, and, in some cases, no homes.

School-transportation officials also have to race to reconfigure bus routes. But first they must travel the new routes themselves to make sure all of the roads are passable. "In our case,'' says Baum of the Valmeyer schools, "we had roads under water, and 80 percent of the population had relocated, so they just didn't live there anymore.''

In Dade County, after the routes had been mapped out and the buses were ready to run, school officials discovered they no longer had the employees to drive them. When they couldn't locate their regular drivers, schools had to recruit members of the Florida National Guard to drive the buses.

And, in some communities, the new routes can mean longer commutes for students. After Hurricane Hugo destroyed a high school in the rural, northernmost reaches of Charleston County, students there had to be transported to the nearest high school, 30 miles to the south, until their own school could be rebuilt. "Some students would leave home at 6 A.M. and not go back home until 6 P.M.,'' Haselden recalls.

Finding enough teachers and substitutes to staff newly reopened schools can also be a concern. When the 1989 San Francisco earthquake damaged the Bay Bridge, school officials were concerned that teachers living on the other side of the bridge would be stranded. Eventually, most came back, but they were forced to take longer, circuitous routes to work each day, Yee says.

And many of the Los Angeles teachers who lived near the January quake's epicenter in the San Fernando Valley had their own homes destroyed or damaged. Yet, Cherry, the Los Angeles teacher, says, 96 percent of teachers citywide reported to work when schools reopened.

Financing Disaster

Even after school officials are able to reconstruct some semblance of a normal school routine, someone has to figure out how to pay for it all.

The Charleston County school system is still waiting for checks to cover much of the $27 million to $29 million in damages that Hurricane Hugo inflicted on its school system 4½ years ago. Haselden says the district currently is embroiled in a lawsuit with its insurer over the cost of the repairs. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency will not provide its share of the remainder until that dispute is settled.

"Immediately after a storm, you're in a state of confusion at best, and they come in and assess the properties,'' Haselden says. "The problem is your claim is tied to that initial documentation, and the economy changes drastically after a disaster. Prices go through the roof, and the federal government says, 'Thou shalt get so much per square foot' to repair fencing, but we're paying more than that.''

Dade County, in that regard, has been more fortunate. Virtually all of the $400 million in damages Hurricane Andrew wrought on school facilities nearly a year and a half ago has been paid off, according to Fraind. Moreover, he says, President Bush, stinging from criticism that he had not responded quickly enough to previous disasters elsewhere, visited the area and encouraged school officials to call him or then-Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander to iron out any difficulties that might arise with federal agencies.

Florida state officials also told Dade school officials that they would not lose per-pupil state funds should school enrollment drop after the disaster. Charleston County did not get a similar waiver from the state of South Carolina.

And enrollment often does drop. In Dade County, it shrank from 304,000 in the school year before Hurricane Andrew to 250,000 afterward. This school year, 312,000 pupils are enrolled.

"What happens is that families that already wanted to leave because of the crime or gangs or the high cost of living said, 'When we get that insurance payment, we're leaving,''' Fraind says.

Another financial problem school systems face is erosion of their property-tax bases. With valuable farmland, homes, and businesses wiped out by floods, assessed valuations in Valmeyer, Ill., have declined by half this school year.

"At most, we'll get half the taxes next year that we got this year,'' Baum, the superintendent, predicts. Impact aid from the U.S. Education Department may help make up the difference. But Baum does not yet know how much the school system will receive.

Rainbow After the Storm

But school officials also say that, as terrible as they are, natural disasters can present fresh opportunities for school systems.

"We thought, if schools could reopen, we could reopen them on a renewed basis,'' says Cohen, the deputy superintendent in Dade County. So county school officials developed "Project Phoenix,'' a $25 million effort to incorporate education reforms into the rebuilding process.

Under the program, the school system will rebuild two elementary schools in areas hard hit by the hurricane and then reopen them as "full service'' schools that offer preschool programs, before- and after-school care, adult programs, family-resource centers, and a range of health and social services. Officials also introduced a new competency-based curriculum--based on emerging national academic standards--for the school system and encouraged the schools to reorganize around a theme or focus.

"If you can look forward to something new and exciting, that, in itself, has a salubrious effect,'' says Cohen, who is still living in only one room of her house while the other rooms get the necessary repairs.

Gary Marx, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, worked in a suburban Omaha school district where a tornado struck in 1975. He says such disasters provide an opportunity as well to demonstrate "the efficiency of government.''

"If the situation can be handled in the best way possible, and the school district can come through it as quickly as possible, it can almost be seen as a victory over adversity," he says. "It becomes part of the school district's history and tradition."

Vol. 13, Issue 21, Page 30-33

Published in Print: February 16, 1994, as It's Only Natural
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