Schools Bring Healing to Communities Hit by Disaster

In our continuing series on ZIP codes – and on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy – NEA Today takes you to three areas of the country that share a menacing trait—they are ground zero for destructive natural disasters. But they also share an inspiring trait—they are resilient and they draw strength from their school communities to recover and move on. The following stories show the incredible power of our public schools to heal a community in the wake of disaster.

07735 Union Beach, New Jersey: Stronger  Than The Storm

One year after Hurricane Sandy roared into the town of Union Beach, N.J., seventh-grade language arts teacher Joyce Jensen is still living in an RV parked in her driveway. She hopes that by Thanksgiving she and her family will be able get back into their house, which suffered 90 percent damage from storm surge.

“We had six feet of water in our house and we’re not even close to the shore,” says Jensen. “Of the five houses on our block, only two of us are back. It’s like we live in a different town. Buildings are gone. Houses are gone. The VFW is gone. We’re hoping to get back to normal, but it’s hard for so many people who just can’t afford to rebuild.”

Union Beach, a working class town in Northern New Jersey about a half an hour southeast of Staten Island, sits on Raritan Bay. It was one of the hardest hit communities in what residents call a 100-year storm. More than half of the town’s houses were damaged or destroyed and a year later many families are still unable to go back home. Even those who’ve spent a lifetime in Union Beach say they’ve never seen a storm like Sandy, but meteorologists warn that rising sea levels and warmer waters in the northeast could bring more devastating storms to the mid-Atlantic and New England.

While coastal communities from Florida to the Carolinas brace for hurricane season each year, it hadn’t been too much of a consideration for Union Beach. But now it’s the new normal and Jensen and her fellow educators have learned how important a school community is for recovery.

“The school is our family and, like a family, we all banded together,” says Jensen, who has lived in Union Beach for 26 years and was grateful for students, parents, colleagues, and the school secretary who all helped her clean out the mud and debris from her home. “Everyone was there for each other.”

Staying together as a family wasn’t easy—Jensen teaches at the town’s K-8 school, Union Beach Memorial, which took a direct hit from the storm and just reopened last June after months of construction and contamination clean-up. The students spent the school year squeezed into four different facilities.

“We finally were all back home together,” says Jensen. “Even though it was just for a month, it was so good for morale.”

It had been a very difficult year for the students, and Jensen and her colleagues soon found that they weren’t just educators responsible for classroom instruction. They were also acting as crisis counselors. Sometimes it was impossible to draw the line between supporter and educator.

But Jensen found a way to do both. She’s a language arts teacher, so she had her students express their feelings about the storm through writing.

“These kids were shell shocked. They’d not only lived through the terrifying storm, but its aftermath,” she says. “The National Guard was out in force, and the students were worried about the grifters who would come to town. There were signs posted on businesses: ‘Looters will be shot.’ There were demolished homes and piles of debris everywhere. And the awful smell. It literally smelled like death.”

She remembers when the Red Cross left, and when the Salvation Army left, and finally, when the National Guard left. But her students were still trying to cope with nightmares and anxiety. She knew that expressing their feelings would help. What she didn’t know was how much trauma they’d experienced until she read their essays, each of which began with the prompt, “I remember.”

The students wrote about how they remembered the howling winds, the power going out, and the water flowing through the streets of their neighborhoods, crashing through basement windows, rising over front steps and into first floors. They remembered roofs being torn away from homes and watching debris float through their yards. They remembered the night sky flashing blue as transformers exploded like bombs, and watching flames race across the water outside their windows after nearby houses and businesses caught fire.

When the water started rising, Richard Carunchio’s parents started to worry. His mother called the neighbors who lived on a hill, asking if they could ride out the storm there. They almost didn’t make it. “We had to swim through five feet of ice cold water to get out,” Richard wrote.

Marco Oldhafer wrote about how propane tanks were floating in their yard, spilling gas into the floodwaters as a transformer sparked in front of the house. “My whole body went numb,” he wrote. “Our house might blow up and we can’t escape!” Marco had to shine a flashlight out the window as his father swam into the roiling waters to switch off the gas tanks.

Laurel Mason remembers her house rocking back and forth on its foundation in 10 feet of storm surge. Her family was rescued by firemen who took them to the evacuation shelter where they would spend the next month sleeping on cots and eating donated meals.

The students also remembered trying to be strong for their families.

“I was really scared on the inside but I did not show it on the outside,” wrote Ariana Cruz.

“I was trying to hold in my tears the best I could,” Billy Doren recalled. “The stench of mold and raw sewage filled the air. There were demolished houses everywhere. It was just too much to handle.”

Shane Peragine wrote about how lucky he felt that nobody in Union Beach was killed and that his house was okay, but that the scenes of devastation were overwhelming. “This was like something you see on television or in the movies and I didn’t want it to be real!”

After the reality sank in, the students also wrote about the care and concern people showed each other and how that brought neighbors together. “Even though everything we had or ever owned was destroyed, we were closer somehow,” wrote Nicole Gaillard.

What Jensen was most moved by, however, was the students’ desire to help their town recover. They wrote about volunteering at the shelters, the fire house, and the police station, and about helping clean up debris and handing out bottled water.

“Who knew there was such a compassionate side to seventh graders,” she says, laughing. They really wanted to connect with each other, and they learned what happens when you make that connection.”

Like Kayla Carvahlo, who recalled how she “tried to help everyone who needed it…and it made me feel good about myself.”

The students’ memoirs have been printed in a book, “Sandy Stories: A Compilation of 7th Grade Essays,” that Jensen is selling for $5 to raise money for the school.

33950 Punta Gorda, Florida- Extreme the New Norm

The first Florida hurricane was recorded in the 16th century by a ship lost at sea. The Sunshine State’s tropical cyclones have been tracked ever since—monitoring hundreds of unnamed storms and well-known disasters, like 1935’s Labor Day hurricane and Andrew, which hit in 1992.

Hurricanes come every year and the question begs: How do schools deal with them?

When in season, “I look at the weather channel daily,” says Bryan Bouton, a television production teacher who, at the time, taught at Charlotte High School (CHS) in Punta Gorda, Fla. In 2004, the high school was severely damaged by Hurricane Charley, the second most severe storm to hit Florida since Andrew.

“Do I spend hours and hours agonizing over it? No. I check the index. I see the air coming off the Sahara, where these things are born. I see what’s coming and [I] plan around things,” Bouton says.

Unlike other natural disasters—earthquakes or wildfires—there’s advanced warning, giving Floridians time to prepare. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had been monitoring Charley for four days before it hit land. School staff had plenty of time to cover equipment and pull it away from windows, lift furniture off the ground, send students home, and lock down schools.

But Charley was more than anyone expected.

The storm was originally set to hit the Tampa area, according to the National Hurricane Center. A shift in the storm’s track caused it to make a sharp turn and with less than three hours before reaching landfall, Charley was headed straight toward Punta Gorda in Charlotte County.

By the time it arrived, winds were at their peak, 145 miles per hour, making Charley a category four hurricane.

Six of the county’s 21 schools were destroyed, with CHS suffering the most damage. The cafeteria, one of the gyms, and the auditorium were all that remained of the 320,000 square foot campus. The four portable classrooms surrounding the school, one belonging to Bouton, were gone.

“It’s like watching David Copperfield make an elephant disappear. The thing was right there! And it’s an elephant! How can it disappear?!”

Adding insult to injury, Charley was quickly followed by Ivan, Francis, and Jeannie. All four storms had a direct effect on Charlotte County. By the time Jeannie, a category three, hit, the sentiment around town, according to Bouton was, “Please. Come back when you have something better.”

Bouton is not a cynic. He takes hurricanes seriously. “We know they’re there, but we don’t let them dominate our lives until they hit,” because there’s only so much a person can do before and during the storm. The hard part comes later, when educators try to put the pieces back together and give students a sense of normalcy.

After the Storm
Many students were left homeless. Others slept in tents in their front yards for the remainder of the school year because their homes were destroyed. Nearly 100 educators were left homeless, too, and another 450 had homes that sustained severe damage. Bouton moved 15 times that year.

After Charley’s short reign, the school district was quick in their response and educators were on overdrive trying to get back on track. After a 10-day shutdown, schools “doubled up,” meaning students were sent to a neighboring high school that ran in shifts.

CHS students went to Port Charlotte High School from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. and Port Charlotte students went from 12:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Bus drivers were working painfully long hours, driving from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. with a two-hour break in the middle. Teachers were taking care of business, too, arriving early and staying way past the last bell.

Students eventually returned to the CHS campus after about a semester of being doubled up. The Charlotte County School District set up portable schools near the campus. While builders reconstructed the high school, educators who remained made sure students were learning.

The payoff was worth it: “That year we graduated kids who went to Harvard and Ivy League schools. We didn’t let that year stop us from doing what was needed to be done,” Bouton says. “Our profession is about educating children, but sometimes it’s more than books or tests—it’s about sitting down with [students] and talking to [them] about how the family is doing.”

Six years and $79 million later, CHS was rebuilt with the confidence that it will withstand future hurricanes. Using more stringent building codes, the school now features impact resistance windows, hurricane protection fabric that covers doors and windows, and a better fastening system to prevent 155 mile-per-hour winds from blowing off the roof.

With committed educators and a newer, stronger building, the school has remained a high-performing school.

Charley was intense and the other storms that followed may have added more misery to Charlotte County, but at the end of it all, “It was something we got through. We adapted, improvised, and overcame. And that’s what we do as educators,” Bouton says.

80908 Colorado Springs, CO: In the Wake of a Wildfire

For nine days in June, the Black Forest fire in Black Forest, Colo., ravaged homes and threatened school buildings. The inferno also revealed the strength and resilience of a school community.

Pine Creek High School teacher Denise Gardiner says the sights and sounds of Colorado’s worst fire were chilling. “The air was filled with massive clouds of smoke, homes went up in flames one after another so quickly, and a steady line of fire trucks from around the country raced to our schools,” says Gardiner. “One look and you knew instantly that this was a bad one.”

Wildfires regularly threaten the area. One year earlier—nearly to the day—the Waldo Canyon fire devastated nearby homes and communities.

In June, the area was hit by three fires: Big Meadows, Royal Gorge, and—worst of all—Black Forest. It burned 15,500 acres, engaged 850 firefighters, destroyed 502 homes and came within striking distance of two schools, burning playground equipment and tool sheds. The destruction of student and staff homes hurt the school community the most.

“The television images often showed the multimillion dollar homes going up in flames,” says Challenger Middle School technology teacher Bobby Sorden, “but the truth is, there were a lot of families in smaller homes who lost everything and we as a school community found ourselves severely impacted.”

In all, 161 students and 23 staff members lost their homes in the June blaze. One hundred and eight students were left homeless.

When wildfires threaten, how should school communities prepare? Organization and a strong emergency plan are key, says Brian Grady, executive director for security and transportation for Academy District 20. “Each school has an emergency plan which is updated annually,” says Grady. “Schools also have monthly fire drills as well as annual lockdown and tornado drills.”

A strong communications system is also key. “Keeping the staff and families informed of the fire’s progress and its impact on their schools is critical,” Grady says. “We had crisis teams ready and made sure the communication lines were open and working.”

Gardiner points out that school staff must also be ready—even if that means becoming an outpost for 850 firefighters from across the nation.  “Pine Creek became the command center for the fire crews,” she says. “The security team and facilities staff made sure the firefighters and first responders were well cared for.”

Firefighting may stop once a wildfire winds down, but that is when school and community work begins. “It’s amazing what helps a child and family that’s lost everything in a fire,” says Challenger teacher Bobby Sorden. “As a yearbook advisor, I realized that we had access to photos and yearbooks that many of our students and staff lost in the wildfires. Like other schools and the district, we were able to offer them precious photos and memories.”

Sorden’s wife Christy is a counselor. She and her best friend Amber Jeffords—an elementary teacher who also grew up in the area—created the Black Forest Benefit Organization. The group has hosted a benefit concert and a fair, and served as a collection point for food, school supplies, toys, and resources for affected families.

Gardiner organized fundraisers to help Pine Creek staff who lost houses in the wildfire, and joined community-wide thank you events for all of the first responders.

To ease their return to school, students were encouraged to attend a two-day event at the district’s education and administration center where they could engage in play activities with other students and their teachers. Crisis team members were also available to talk to students or parents who had difficulty coping in the fire’s aftermath. “The resiliency of the staff, students, and parents was remarkable,” says Grady.

“Having a strong school community come together for you and your family is incredible,” says Lisa Rylan. Her family lost their home, which included yearbooks and other treasures. The support of the school community, she says, “is the best part.”