Shock and disbelief.
These are the words that John Farrelly, former superintendent of Edgecombe County Public Schools, used to describe the situation that met his eyes when he rode with the U.S. Army Reserve on an amphibious vehicle last October to view the state of Princeville Elementary School the day after flood waters from Hurricane Matthew filled the school.
The ongoing recovery efforts in the school and its district can offer lessons for those now impacted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
David Coker, director of maintenance and transportation for the school district, said concern about the devastation wrought at the school was only part of the emotion that impacted him when he first viewed the school by boat.
“Although I was worried about the damage to the school, I was more concerned about the devastation I saw all around the school — the homes of our students that were destroyed and how it would impact their lives,” Coker said.
About 75% of Princeville Elementary School student homes were affected by the flood, and most of those are still displaced from the home they occupied at that time. Almost a third of its students did not return to school this year, as most homes in the area have not been rebuilt. Across the school district, which has about 6200 students, the homeless population has grown by more than 300 students since last year.
Almost a year after the hurricane, Princeville Elementary School students are also still displaced from their beloved school building. The school board now must decide whether to rebuild the school, which was one of the newest of the 14 schools in a small district where most schools are more than 40 years old. The reason for the school’s comparative newness? Princeville Elementary School was rebuilt after it was also flooded in 1999 in the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd.
First steps in recovery
Over the course of the past year, administrators at Edgecombe County Public Schools have learned a lot about the process of hurricane recovery — a process that, in many ways, is just beginning as much of the aid money is yet to be dispersed at the local level.
“Before the water had even receded, our superintendent had a meeting of district leaders where we devised a plan of action,” said Communications Coordinator Susan Hoke. “Looking back, this very detailed plan with strong leadership was the reason we were successful in our recovery efforts. We kept the needs of our students at the forefront of every decision that was made.”
Even while flood waters were rising in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, school leaders devised a backup plan in case Princeville or another school in the district were flooded. An older school building in the district that had been used for office space for several years had just months before been converted into a family resource center. That makeover meant the building was in good repair.
Though the school lacked modern amenities like a commercial kitchen, cafeteria or playground, school officials and teachers and community members quickly worked together to get the building ready for displaced students. There was little to move, as most of the desks and equipment were under flood waters. As a result of these efforts, Princeville Elementary students missed only 13 days due to the hurricane before coming to their “new” school. Most students across the district missed eight days.
“Once the realization hit that our school was under water, teachers were very open to the idea of relocating after the flooding. At this point, we were anxious to have our students resume a sense of normalcy. The teachers were grateful to have a place to call home together where healing could begin,” said Annette Walker, principal of Princeville Elementary School.
Walker said the support of other educators made the process of relocation run more smoothly, noting that when those within the state and nationwide saw the school's situation, “the donations poured in and classrooms were filled with more supplies than one would have ever asked to have,” Walker said.
Coker said another important first step to recovery was to make sure the affected school building was dried out as soon as possible.
“As soon as we were able to get to the school, we had teams removing wet material. After the wet items were removed, we brought in dehumidifiers to get air moving in the building. We learned this lesson after Hurricane Floyd in 1999,” Coker said.
Going the extra mile
Edgecombe County Public Schools also had to make tough decisions about transportation in the aftermath of the storm. Students at Princeville were not the only ones affected. Hundreds of students from nine different schools were displaced by the storm into shelters, hotels or homes of friends and family members. As the days passed, these families found more stable dwellings, but some were located in other counties.
Farrelly said that sending students to other school districts was not really an option. Besides, he was intent on providing stability to students to help them deal with crisis.
As a result, the school district transported 117 students from five surrounding counties to Edgecombe County Public Schools for the remainder of the academic year at a cost of over $300,000 extra in transportation expenses.
“We ran 54,867 additional miles on buses and also had to pick up some students on private transportation,” Coker said.
The academic benefits of community engagement
Hoke said the support of the local and extended community did much to aid recovery efforts.
“Even in the midst of terrible devastation following Hurricane Matthew, it also brought out the best in our community! Our school leaders, board members, teachers, staff members, and students really stepped up to organize neighborhood cleanups, sponsor food drives, and provide emotional support. Also, folks from all over the country contacted us with a desire to help our students and teachers. We even had a school in Oklahoma send 10 boxes of candy in October because they knew the students in Princeville would not have a neighborhood to trick-or-treat in,” Hoke said.
An amazing result of this effort was revealed when North Carolina school performance scores were released last week. The results showed that most Edgecombe County Public School scores dropped in the past year and failed to meet growth, due in large part to 14 instructional days missed due to the hurricane and later weather issues. However, Princeville Elementary, which is still regarded as a failing school, did meet growth and gained ground on its school performance scores, despite missing 19 days during the year — more than 10% of its instructional time.
Jan Morris, accountability director for the district said that the community attention given to the school in the wake of the storm also had a large role to play.
“We had strong support from local, state and national organizations and citizens,” Morris said. “We also had a committed staff that wanted school to a supportive, fun learning environment for their students as they were going through so many challenges after the school day ended.”
Farrelly, who now leads Dare County Schools, said this community effort is the key to recovery.
“There is great power in a community rallying to love, serve and support others,” Farrelly said