Hurricane Rita Prompts School Closures

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With memories of Hurricane Katrina still fresh, school districts in the predicted path of Hurricane Rita closed their doors and scrambled to secure student and employee data as the storm bore down on the Gulf Coast of Texas.

More than a dozen school districts in that region were closed Sept. 22 and at least through the weekend. Among them is the 210,000-student Houston school district, which absorbed about 5,300 students from areas of the country affected by Hurricane Katrina.

School buses are used to evacuate residents from Galveston, Texas in preparation for Hurricane Rita.
School buses are used to evacuate residents from Galveston, Texas in preparation for Hurricane Rita.
—Tim Johnson/Reuters

Katrina “heightened everyone’s sensitivity to the potential devastating impact of a hurricane,” said Houston schools spokesman Terry Abbott. “It’s shown us the urgency of moving quickly.”

The district closed schools Sept. 22 and Sept. 23, and essential school personnel moved into an emergency facility to weather the storm, now expected to make landfall by late evening Sept. 23 or early morning Sept. 24. Though it strengthened to a ferocious Category 5 storm while it moved over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it is expected to weaken slightly as it approaches the upper Texas coast.

More than 1 million people are trying to move to safer locations and traffic is gridlocked, Mr. Abbott said. “We’ve been asked to use school buses to move people, but the buses are caught in traffic,” he said.

On the Gulf Coast, about 40 miles from Houston, the 9,100-student Galveston school district made a decision to close after the school day ended on Tuesday. In recent weeks, the district had added about 455 students who had evacuated their homes after Hurricane Katrina.

The city, which was devastated in a hurricane in 1900, is practically empty, said Christine Ruiz Hopkins, the Galveston school district spokeswoman. In addition to preparing for the storm, the district also decided to make an early payroll deposit to its employees. About 80 percent of school employees use direct deposit, but about 20 percent rely on paper checks. Those checks were ready for them by the close of business Tuesday, instead of Friday as normally scheduled, Ms. Hopkins said.

Administrators have been given Nextel radios to stay in contact with each other. “Right now, were just kind of waiting to see what happens,” Ms. Hopkins said.

'Better to Be Safe'

In Corpus Christi, another coastal city, about 260 miles southwest of Galveston, students were in class for a full day Wednesday, said Lorette Winters, the spokeswoman for the 39,500-student district. The district planned to remain closed at least until Monday, Sept. 26, though it looked like the storm may be shifting direction away from the city. A mandatory evacuation was changed early Thursday afternoon to a voluntary evacuation, Ms. Winters said.

That’s a bit of a relief, Ms. Winters said. “We were really right in there—we were very much in the path,” she said.

It has been a long time since Corpus Christi was even in the path of a storm, but the images of Rita, and the destruction of Katrina, has wiped away complacency about preparing for the storm’s impact, Ms. Winters said.

The district is prepared to offer 10 to 12 of its schools as shelters of last resort that would be operated by city personnel. The district has also backed up its computer systems, and asked administrators to carry home important documents with them.

“It’s better to be safe,” she said.

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