After the Hurricane, a Superintendent Picks Up the Pieces
Florida leader leans on experts to open schools after hurricane
Jim Norton picked his way through the damp floor at Wewahitchka High School, where Hurricane Michael’s winds had spirited away part of the school’s roof, leaving behind exposed wires, a mushy mix of white ceiling tiles on the dark carpet, and a clear view of the sky above.
A dozen workers in red shirts were trying to sweep up the mess. But despite the best intentions, crisis-response experts deployed here to help with the recovery advised against the instinct to launch a quick cleanup effort at that site.
“There is no point in them being here,” Jaime Torrens, the chief facilities officer for the Miami-Dade County school system, told Norton, the superintendent of the Gulf County school system in Florida’s Panhandle, who was seeing the hurricane-damaged high school for the first time since the storm hit on Oct. 10.
Instead, Torrens advised Norton, put a temporary tarp on the building and move the cleanup crew to the town’s elementary school, which the superintendent had already decided would open within a few days for both secondary school and elementary students. The elementary school still had broken glass in a classroom, ceiling insulation on the floor, and a damaged perimeter fence that had collapsed under the weight of two pine trees. But it had an intact roof, was dry and it was relatively unscathed compared to the high school.
For districts slammed by natural disasters, getting schools ready to reopen is a mammoth undertaking, filled with a series of seemingly minute decisions and steps that can make all the difference between a seamless reopening and one filled with recriminations, finger-pointing, and regrets. There’s the risk of moving too fast, of opening before all the conditions are ideal. New Orleans’ schools faced that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when officials in that city opened some buildings with too few teachers and staff and served students partially frozen sandwiches for lunch.
But the act of children waking up in the morning and going to school is one of the most fundamental things in life, and restoring that routine is essential to regaining a sense of normalcy in communities struck by disaster.
That’s why reopening schools is one of the first jobs officials tackle after disasters.
• Activate emergency-response plan
A plan that spells out who the critical partners will be, how the district will work with other agencies, and how damage assessments will be coordinated should be ready and up-to-date. It should include prestorm preparation to secure and safeguard the district’s buildings and assets. Ensure reliable communication for key staff—in Miami-Dade County, Fla., for example, principals have two-way radios that work even if local communication systems are down—and an easy way to report damages. Principals there can report initial damages through an automated damage-assessment system that also allows them to upload pictures from their buildings. That helps the district quickly understand where the most significant damages are and how to deploy resources.
• Assign command team
This team should take the lead in assessing damage and guiding the district’s response, reopening, and recovery efforts. It should include the superintendent or the superintendent’s chief of staff, the director of teaching and learning, the chief financial officer, and the heads of maintenance, facilities, transportation, food, technology, and mental health or counseling. Since electricity is often the biggest challenge districts face when deciding when to reopen schools, it’s helpful to have representatives from the power company and the municipality on the team.
• Have bids and contracts in place
To avoid competing for access to in-demand contractors, have contracts already in place for things that could be damaged in a storm or services that the district would need, including electricity, plumbing, HVAC systems, and debris removal. Set up a disaster or emergency spending fund before the storm that staff can tap into to make purchases as necessary without having to seek approval for individual purchases.
• Have a plan for resuming student learning
Students can be out of school for long periods, so a district should plan for how it intends to continue the academic program, whether it will be through online classes, ad-hoc sessions at community centers or shelters, or adding longer school days when students return.
• Don’t forget the humans
While thinking about the physical tasks of recovering, remember that students, teachers, and staff members just experienced a traumatic event. Make plans for counselors and mental-health support for staff and students, who can carry the scars from what they’ve lived through long after buildings are restored. Recognize that the district may also have to direct more mental-health support to specific geographic areas that were particularly hard-hit or where there may have been fatalities.
But very few people leading school districts have had the experience of doing just that. It’s a job that requires superintendents and other district leaders to be equal parts educators, managers, and politicians.
For Norton, an elected superintendent whose background is in banking, the recovery efforts in the days since Hurricane Michael slammed into the Panhandle was a baptism by fire. In his seven years as schools chief, he’s had to deal with a viral-meningitis outbreak, student expulsions, and labor negotiations.
But those experiences in a district of 1,900 students don’t come close to the scale and complexity of Hurricane Michael.
“How do you eat a whale?” Norton asked rhetorically about the task ahead of him. “One bite at a time.”
Relying on Experts
Torrens and his colleague from Miami, Mark Zaher, that district’s director of school operations, are veterans at disaster recovery. Both men have helped several districts and municipalities figure out the tough logistics of getting back to normal after hurricanes and earthquakes.
Both spent time in Puerto Rico last year after Hurricane Maria, and Biloxi, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina. Zaher worked in Haiti after a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010 left more than 200,000 people dead and the country’s infrastructure in shambles. Teams that report to Torrens and Zaher also have been dispatched to various places after hurricanes. A Miami-Dade maintenance crew helped repair buildings in Florida’s Charlotte County district after Hurricane Charley in 2004, as well as schools damaged in Hurricane Ivan, which struck the Panhandle region in 2004. On the homefront, they’ve also had to weather hurricanes Andrew, Katrina, and most recently Hurricane Irma last year.
It was that experience that led Florida education Commissioner Pam Stewart to connect the leaders from the two school systems after she saw the devastation in Gulf County.
That’s how Torrens and Zaher found themselves driving from Miami to Port St. Joe—a nearly 10-hour drive—seven days after the hurricane. Most of the area still had no power. Torrens and Zaher’s plan was to inspect the district’s four schools and other facilities and help Norton come up with a plan to open as quickly as possible. They were not there to take over but to provide guidance, Zaher said.
The intent, Torrens said, was to provide Norton and his team with “an extra set of experienced hands from people who had been through this before, to guide him along and make sure he was asking the right questions, and if the answers he was getting weren't quite the right answers, then to ask another more probing question.”
In their more than 48 hours there, they poked around with flashlights, climbed atop school roofs, inspected broken windows, and made detailed notes of what the district needed to do to meet Norton’s aggressive opening date of less than two weeks after the hurricane.
They found the most extensive damage at Port St. Joe High School, where the wind ripped off a huge portion of the roof and loose ceiling tiles fell into a lab. A skylight had disappeared, and water leaked near the building’s entrance with no discernible point of origin. But the inventory was incomplete because the campus was still being used by dozens of response workers and volunteers, including some from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Duke Energy, and police departments from across the state.
The pair had already arranged to ship 13 sets of stop signs from the Miami-Dade district to replace the ones on the Gulf County school buses that were damaged. They’d also connected Gulf County’s food services and transportation directors with their counterparts in Miami-Dade to get advice.
“We have had to rely on them to do it; we’ve been that swamped,” said Norton, whose ringing cellphone frequently cut his sentences short.
“You asked what they were going to do? You can’t be in but one place at one time,” Norton continued. “They’ve done this before, and it’s nice to have them.”
When Norton woke up on Friday morning, there were two major problems to solve to get schools open the following week.
The city of Wewahitchka still did not have electricity—though the power company had promised that power would return in time for reopening, five days later. He took the utility’s word for it.
And district officials still could not reach their food vendor, which is based in Panama City, where the storm flattened buildings and left most of the city without water and electricity and with spotty cellphone coverage and internet access.
Then there was the actual task of cleaning up the elementary schools in Port St. Joe and Wewahitchka, which had minor damage but still needed to be made safe for both elementary and high school students. Norton and his team had decided to have high school students use the elementary schools, at least until portable classrooms arrived. That meant splitting the days in half, so that younger students would be in class in the mornings and secondary students would come in later in the day.
At the same time, Norton had to deal with the damage to his home, where the storm surge swept several feet of water and mud into the house he’s lived in his entire life and destroyed almost everything on the first floor. Two family cottages in Mexico Beach, Fla., were damaged as well, along with his wife’s business.
Norton arrived at Wewahitchka Elementary around 10 a.m. Friday to find a worker slicing into the trunks of two pine trees with a small chain saw. On their way down, the trees took out a canopy over a walkway and bus shelter where students get dropped off in the morning and picked up in the afternoon. A section of the gray fence that surrounded the low-slung brick building also collapsed under the falling trees.
Some half a dozen maintenance workers, along with their boss, Woody Borders, had already been working four hours, hauling away pieces of metal and fence posts before the Florida sun got too hot.
While Norton observed the cleanup, Robin Safley, the executive director of Feeding Florida, a network of food banks, approached him to ask if she and her team could use the school to set up a feeding site for residents in Wewahitchka, where stores were closed and gas unavailable for miles.
Norton was ambivalent; he was more interested in ensuring that his students had food when they came back to class in a few days. Still, he directed Safley to work with Lori Price, the assistant superintendent for instructional services, to hammer out something.
But Torrens and Zaher, who were already at the site and hauling away pieces of fence, spotted a solution. They told Norton that Safley’s proposal could work in the district’s favor if officials couldn’t reach the regular food vendor.
The Miami-Dade pair already thinking about Plan B, including possibly trucking in food from Tallahassee, about two hours away. But if the local food bank network was allowed to set up in the elementary school, the district could guarantee food was available as students returned to the community to check in personally with school officials and showed up for the first day of classes.
It turned out they didn’t need any backup plan. Later that same day, Norton got a text message from Bill Carr, the assistant superintendent for business and human resources. Carr had found the vendor. Food would be provided at both campuses to feed students and staff, within three days.
“I have to admit I was sweating this one,” Carr texted.
Norton sent him a thumbs-up.
“Again, ‘Field of Dreams,’ ” Norton said. “Build it, and they’ll come. We are counting on a lot. I am not going to tell you everything comes together just like we planned it, but it came together on that one.”
Countdown Is On
With the county still in the dark, Torrens got on the phone with the disaster company overseeing the district’s repairs to arrange for a generator at the elementary school. Crews needed power to run the vacuum cleaners and test the air conditioning units. The elementary school staff would also be able to use the generators for lighting when they were cleaning up, Torrens said.
“I need all focus on Wewa Elementary School,” Norton said to the representative on the phone. “I need everybody in the elementary and focus there. All the structural stuff, all the limbs, make sure there are no widow makers. You do what you got to do.”
And so it went during the day: Norton and his staff would frequently turn to the Miami-Dade team to ask a version of, “What do we do?” or “How would you do this?” Either Torrens or Zaher would answer, or one them would get on the phone with whomever Norton had on the line.
Norton had his first meal of the day, an MRE lunch of spaghetti—the self-contained meals used widely in the military during combat operations—early in the afternoon, after taking a break from work to meet with the insurance adjuster at his home.
Like many of his neighbors in Port St. Joe, the contents of Norton’s home—including a sofa, chairs, and a container in which Halloween decorations had been stored—were scattered on the front lawn. Mud and leaves caked the floors inside. A yellow line showed where the water had crested.
Amid all the preparation of returning to school, Norton also met with two members of Congress—U.S. Reps. Neal Patrick Dunn, R-Florida who represents a portion of the Panhandle ,and Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, to discuss federal assistance to the community.
He stopped by the Centennial Building, a Port St. Joe venue typically used for weddings and other celebrations, where teachers and former teachers had set up a site to receive and distribute donated clothing, toiletries, diapers and wipes, and canned food.
Zaher said it was the most organized distribution center he’d seen. If the community were to ever find itself in the same situation, residents would not have to wait for help, he said. They were now the experts.
The teachers who ran the distribution center—and others who showed up to pick up supplies—were a little wary about returning to school so soon. But they said they were anxious to see their students and make sure they were OK. In a small school system like Gulf County’s, teachers had one-on-one contact with every student and could see for themselves how students were coping, they said.
Joni White, a 6th grade teacher was a lucky one. Remarkably, her home and property were “perfect,” and without any storm damage, she said.
She felt ready to go back to school and to reassure her students, but she also knew that so many other teachers were not as lucky as she was.
“On the personal side, I know that there are a lot of teachers that aren’t ready themselves to come back,” White said. “But on the teacher side of it, I can’t wait to see my kids and make sure they are safe and that they are taken care of. ”
One of her students’ homes burned during the storm, White said.
“I have no idea how to help her other than just to be there for her,” she said.
Lee Anna Parrish, a 5th and 6th grade special education teacher at Port St. Joe Elementary School, was rescued by fellow teachers, but was also determined to get back to school as soon as possible.
Parrish, who was housing six family friends in the home her family shares with her mother a week after the storm, said the damage to the house from a storm surge was minimal, but the family would have to get rid of furniture and other personal effects that her husband’s late mother had left them.
After hearing that Parrish had to be rescued, one of her students sent his mother over with dinner to cheer her up. That’s why she had to go back, she said.
“My kids need me,” Parrish said, her voice cracking with emotion. “They need me, and I need them. That’s just how it goes. I’ll go back, and we’ll be happy again. They need normalcy. ...They need a routine, and they need to know there is life after this. That’s what I want to show them.”
For Norton, the most challenging part of his job right now is not fitting together the tiny pieces of the puzzle to reopen the schools.
“It’s the fact that I don’t have a home to bring my wife, and kids, and my 85-year-old dad back to, and have some semblance of what I had two weeks ago,” he said. “I’m working hard to get there, and by the grace of God, I will get there.”
Norton remains grateful for the outpouring of support—from Gov. Rick Scott’s visits to the county; his direct access to Commissioner Stewart, who he said is now like “family”; residents who are themselves trying to rebuild their own lives, and private companies that have reached out to him and his team with offers of help.
“This is a beautiful situation,” he said. “I pray for strength, I pray for guidance, wisdom to guide me, and so far I’ve been blessed because where I have found myself weak or deficient, others around me have stepped up with their A-game.”
Vol. 38, Issue 11, Page 1Published in Print: October 31, 2018, as After the Storm, Superintendent Picks Up Pieces