When the heavy rains from Tropical Storm Florence finally let up, the operations crew from the New Hanover County district in North Carolina found flooded classrooms, leaking roofs, downed trees, blown-out light bulbs on athletic fields, a massive sink hole in front of a high school with a toppled tree blocking the driveway, and no electricity in most schools.
But with many roadways and the city of Wilmington nearly cut off from the outside world, the district’s staff could only get to about 60 percent of the buildings, some of which were severely damaged during the days-long assault from the storm. The storm made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane late last week near Wrightsville Beach, N.C., and spent the weekend hovering over the Carolinas and dumping up to 30 inches of rain in some areas.
But of all the damage that Superintendent Tim Markley had seen, there’s one image he can’t shake: the sight of one of his teachers, arriving at a shelter.
“It’s kind of tough when you are operating a shelter and you see one of your teachers walk into that shelter and all she’s got—all that’s left—is what she is carrying in her hand,” said Markley, who spent the better part of two days at the Emma B. Trask Middle School shelter in Wilmington.
“You want me, in two weeks, to have that person come in and teach 30 kids as they are trying to get their life back together?”
That searing moment encapsulates the monumental challenges facing school districts in the communities in North Carolina and South Carolina that bore the brunt of Florence’s wrath as they try to get back to the way things were a week ago: How to fix shattered windows, caved-in roofs, and flooded classrooms, while not losing sight of the storm’s deep emotional toll on students, staff, and their families who lost homes, treasured possessions and, in some cases, loved ones. (One of the earliest deaths reported in the storm was the parent of a New Hanover County student.)
“We may get everything cleaned up, we may get everything put back together as best we can, but we’re going to be dealing with this for years,” said Rick Holliday, the district’s deputy superintendent.
Deciding When Schools Can Re-Open
New Hanover—with 26,000 students—was one of the 49 school districts in North Carolina that remained closed at the start of the week.
In the hard-hit city of New Bern, N.C., where more than 400 residents had to be rescued from rising floodwaters, Superintendent Meghan Doyle said her staff will spend the rest of this week visiting shelters to find students to check on their well-being and let them know that regardless of where they may be staying, the district would provide transportation to their home schools.
Some school staff have been sending text messages to families asking them to check in with principals and others are volunteering with nonprofits, including Samaritan’s Purse, to help students and their families.
Doyle said some of the hardest-hit families are among the district’s most disadvantaged and she’s aiming to re-open schools as quickly as possible to provide students a familiar, caring environment.
“It’s just adding a lot more stress and strain on these families and these kids,” said Doyle, adding that many of the same families suffered losses in 2016’s Hurricane Matthew. “It’s really been challenging for them and really sad for our staff.”
Lack of power and the four school-based shelters are the main challenges to meeting Doyle’s goal of opening schools by no later than late next week. Despite extensive flooding in some buildings and wind damage at other locations, Doyle said it’s possible for students to return to classes while repairs are under way.
The state department of public instruction estimated that damages from Florence could exceed what the public schools sustained in Hurricane Matthew when districts insured through the department’s insurance fund reported $14 million in losses. (The department of public instruction is an insurance provider for the majority of the state’s school districts.)
Mark Johnson, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, warned of the tough road ahead.
“We are nowhere near the end of this storm or its devastation, but we have already begun responding when and how we can,” Johnson said in a statement Monday. “Even as many schools in the state return to normal this week, others will be in varying conditions of response and restoration.”
Even down the coast in South Carolina, districts were still bracing for more flooding.
The Horry County district, which includes Myrtle Beach, saw somewhat minimal damage to its buildings. But the continued threat of flooding was a major cause of concern.
Many roads remained impassible, with the county listing as many as 127 road closures on Tuesday.
That means that even though the district may be able to get its buildings ready for students to return, its buses may not be able to navigate the roadways, including 600 miles of dirt road, said Lisa Bourcier, a district spokeswoman.
That lingering uncertainty weighed heavily in the decision to close school Tuesday and Wednesday for its 44,000 students and 5,800 staff.
“We are still waiting for a lot of the floodwaters from North Carolina to come in, and that is expected later this week,” Bourcier said. “We don’t think the worst has been seen yet. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Markley and the New Hanover County district team hope to get the district’s 45 schools up and running within two weeks, or three at the most, based on an inspection early this week. But some of the repairs will take time, and not all of them will be completed in two weeks, Markley said.
District officials were worried about the school on Wrightsville Beach, near where Florence made landfall, but the principal called Tuesday to report that there was very little water damage to the building.
Still, repairs are likely to come with a hefty price tag.
“We’re not close to begin to estimate a cost yet,” Markley said.
Nearly all of the factors that would determine when schools in the county will reopen are out of the district’s control. Reopening depends on when the roadways are cleared, when the lights come back on, when the two remaining school-based shelters are cleared, when businesses reopen, when families and staff return home, and when residents can easily buy gas.
“If those go quickly, we can get in faster,” Markley said. “If it takes longer then it will slow down the process.”
About 20 of the district’s 44 principals evacuated out of the county before the storm. And there’s flooding expected over the next few days as rivers crest making the road conditions even worse than they already are, he said.
“Because it’s an emergency situation, [county officials] are the ones who are in charge,” Markley said.
Dealing With the Emotional Toll of the Storm
In the interim, Markley plans to work with disaster recovery firms that specialize in repairing and restoring building after storms.
Over the next several days, Markley and his team have to think about the following:
- How long will the county need to use its buildings as shelters?
- How long will it take to clean debris from the schools?
- If the damage is too severe in one or a few schools, can the district reopen and let the displaced students take classes elsewhere?
“If I can bring 40 schools back on line and I’ve got three or four [that are not ready], then I’ve got to decide what do we do with the students in those three or four schools,” Markley said. “Do we relocate them? Do we hold them out longer? There are a lot of decisions that go into this.”
And once students actually get back into the buildings, that’s not the end of it.
District officials say they plan to set up counseling for both staff and students, many of whom have just “gone through something that many of them have never experienced before.”
“And that’s that next step after we get the buildings back up and running—it’s the people side of this business,” he said.
They also worry that some students will not return.
Markley and Holliday put in about two days at shelters over the weekend to relieve principals who had been working at the shelters since before the storm had hit.
Markley was at Emma B. Trask Middle School when a roof pipe broke and flooded the building; some evacuees had to be moved to a nearby high school.
Many of the district’s employees came to help. Bus drivers drove evacuees to shelters. Cafeteria workers served meals. Principals and assistant principals ensured that evacuees were cared for.
“I cannot stress enough how members of the school district stepped up to help,” he said.
Valita Quattlebaum, a spokeswoman for the New Hanover district, said that the tight knit community was just trying to take care of each other the best way it knew how.
“We are trying to restore our school buildings and facilities but also reach out and try to help our families who are suffering so much,” she said. “It’s very difficult, but by supporting each other and reaching out to help however we can, that’s how we are doing it. We are taking it one day at a time.”
Amid the tragedy, one bright spot is the dozens of emails and phones calls the district has gotten from all over the world, including from other districts, from people offering to help with donations and supplies.
“We are very grateful for the love and support that people are showing us at this time,” Quattlebaum said. “That’s just the brightest thing for me so far—just all the support that we are getting.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2018 edition of Education Week as Arduous Job of Opening Schools in Florence’s Path