School Climate & Safety

Katrina Disaster Stirs Memories

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 20, 2005 2 min read

It wasn’t until he took a helicopter ride over Grand Forks, N.D., that Superintendent Mark Sanford realized how much work was ahead to rebuild his school system and a city ravaged by the overflowing of the Red River.

That flood, in April of 1997, scattered the 9,900 students in the Grand Forks district to 24 other states to finish the school year. Sixteen of the 18 schools in the city were destroyed or severely damaged. The remainder of that school year was lost.

But there was little time to get discouraged, Mr. Sanford recalled last week, as educators across the nation took in students displaced by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding of large portions of the New Orleans area. The disaster brought back memories for the superintendent.

As part of the cleanup, he said, district officials paddled boats to abandoned buildings to salvage records and equipment. Contractors were hired to tackle the mold, humidity, and rot that made the buildings uninhabitable. The local public school foundation sent volunteers to coordinate donations. And administrators began debating—with the slate wiped clean—how to restructure schools and academic programs to better serve students.

“It certainly was total devastation,” said Mr. Sanford, who is still the superintendent. “Everybody goes through the moments when you have a lot of questions about whether you can rebuild, but then almost it’s inevitable to say, ‘Well, we’ve got to pick up the pieces.’ ”

Within days, Mr. Sanford said, phone calls came in with promises of money, books, supplies, and assistance. Gov. Edward T. Shafer allowed Grand Rapids to end the school year six weeks early, while the legislature passed a relief plan that continued to pay teachers’ salaries and other expenses. Graduation was held on time at a university campus.

By September 1997, nearly all the schools had reopened, with all but a few hundred students, however, returning to classes in rented church basements and portable classrooms.

Students were back in permanent facilities—with new grade configurations—within a year. By 2000, the last of five new schools opened, and the district was essentially back to normal. Attendance rebounded, although enrollment is down to 7,500 students.

“Once you’ve evacuated, you feel pretty alone,” Mr. Sanford said. “But then you come back the next day and start getting these phone calls . . . and the cleanup becomes a therapy.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2005 edition of Education Week

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