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Schools bounce back from Superstorm Sandy

Twelve months after Sandy, hard-hit districts are in various stages of recovery
  •  Contractors work to remove gym flooring from an elementary school gymnasium damaged by the storm surge of Superstorm Sandy in Long Beach, N.Y., in November 2012.
  • Hurricane Sandy wrecked the gym floor at Long Beach High School  on Long Beach, N.Y.
  • Hurricane Sandy covered the Long Beach Middle School boiler room with water.
  • The wreckage outside of Scholar’s Academy in Far Rockaway, N.Y., after Sandy hit.
  • Flood waters rose over a foot inside Scholar’s Academy, and damaged school equipment, including musical instruments.
  • Ninety iPads were stolen from Scholar’s Academy in the chaos after Sandy, Principal Brian O’Connell says.
  • The newly renovated Scholar’s Academy auditorium, which was ready for students when the school reopened in January.
  • The new gym floor at Scholar's Academy.

When Hurricane Sandy hit Long Beach, N.Y., a year ago, floodwaters and strong winds destroyed 95 percent of the houses in the small beach community, and damaged all six public schools. Administrators were left to deal with the unprecedented disaster wreaked by the storm, scrambling to relocate students to temporary schools and continue education under extremely adverse conditions.

The district’s most severely damaged school, West Elementary, reopened for the first time this fall.

“We’re looking to this school year to be a return to normalcy for us,” says Long Beach Public Schools Superintendent David Weiss.

The storm flooded and destroyed hundreds of other schools along the eastern seaboard and marked the biggest disruption to New York City’s public schools since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Overall, Hurricane Sandy caused about $65 billion in damages, ranking as the second-costliest U.S. storm behind Hurricane Katrina.

Today, many schools in the hardest-hit areas of New York and New Jersey have finished major repairs and have reopened for the 2013-2014 school year. But superintendents and principals face the ongoing challenges of paying for those repairs, getting displaced students back to class, and better protecting schools from future natural disasters.

Funding complications

Long Beach Public Schools suffered about $50 million in damages, and administrators are still negotiating with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the New York Schools Insurance Reciprocal to fund the repairs, Weiss says.

To cover the work done so far, the district has used a combination of insurance money and revenue anticipation notes, which are short-term municipal bonds. Further complicating matters, a $92 million bond-funded upgrade of the district’s schools was underway when the storm hit.

“Everything is an issue when it comes to funding,” says Weiss. “The key piece is everything has to be documented and there are a lot of different policies, especially since we were already doing construction, so that compounded it for us.”

Long Beach Public Schools received about $1 million in donations of goods and money, which became important for getting students back in the classroom with the needed supplies, Weiss says. Two weeks after the storm, students doubled up in three of the district’s six buildings that suffered less damage. Two of the three more badly damaged schools reopened around the winter holidays.

New protections

Long Beach Public Schools administrators are now modifying equipment to prevent damage during future natural disasters. Boilers and electric systems that had been housed on the first floor of schools and ruined during the storm are now secured in watertight structures on raised bases to avoid flood waters.

In one school, the mechanical room has been moved from the first to the second floor. In another, a classroom space was converted into a raised mechanical room. In the elementary school with the most severe flooding, the electricity and heating systems were raised from the floors to the ceilings.

Hurricane-proof windows were already in place in all schools except the high school, so wind damage was minimized. The district has applied for a FEMA grant to replace the high school’s weaker windows, Weiss says.

The lesson? “Really be prepared to protect and minimize your losses, and take preemptive measures to do that,” Weiss says. “The approach we take now is to always be thinking about the worst case, and if we are ready to deal with that.”

Dealing with displaced students

Scholar’s Academy in Far Rockaway, N.Y., was among 56 New York City schools that were so badly damaged they did not reopen until 2013. The grade 6-12 school in the Queens beach town is blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, and was flooded with over a foot of water, says Principal Brian O’Connell.

About half of the school’s 1,200 students are from the Rockaway area, with the rest drawn from other parts of Queens and Brooklyn that were impacted by the storm. “When the storm hit, 60 percent of our student body was homeless or displaced, as was 30 percent of our staff—myself included,” O’Connell says.

In some cases, students moved to different boroughs and even different states to stay with relatives or in hotels. Many still remain displaced today. “Those who stayed in their homes had no electricity, running water or heat,” O’Connell says, in some cases for months. “The community was a war zone.”

Two weeks after the storm, students were relocated to the Roberto Clemente School and W.H. Maxwell Career and Technical Education High School in the New York City public schools system, in Brooklyn, about half an hour’s drive from Scholar’s Academy.

O’Connell feared the distance would prevent students from coming back to school. “The question was how can we communicate with them, and ensure that we get them to attend school at our relocation sites so we don’t lose them permanently?” O’Connell says. “We wanted to give them some degree of normalcy by learning with their teachers and peers.”

Many families lost access to their phone line, but were able to access the internet with their cell phones to get updates from the school. Cloud-based tools already in use by the district—such as a learning management system and free Google mail accounts and surveys—were key for communication, O’Connell says.

Administrators used Google surveys to map where students were living, and hired private buses to transport students to the temporary schools. About 90 percent of students attended the relocation sites. The cloud system kept student data and payroll undamaged and accessible during the storm, O’Connell adds.

Empowering staff and students

A flexible, responsible staff was key for Scholar’s Academy’s transition to the temporary locations, O’Connell says. He suggests “flattening” the administration so staff members beyond the school leader can make important decisions to keep schools functioning.

Scholar’s Academy required extensive renovations—including a new gym floor and auditorium—and the school was not able to reopen until mid-January. While O’Connell was monitoring the reconstruction of Scholar’s Academy, his staff was able to organize and operate classes at the relocation sites.

“Make certain you have systems and structures in place that empower your staff—not just hold them accountable, but allow them to have deep ownership of their portion of the mission,” O’Connell says. “There is no way we would have been successful through this crisis if I was micromanaging everything.”

Scholar’s Academy cut time from February break to make up for two weeks lost after the storm. Upon returning, O’Connell immediately doubled the budget for afterschool and weekend academic programs—from $24,000 to $48,000—to keep students whose homes were damaged on track with their studies. The weekend programs, which included test preparation and small group tutoring sessions, drew between 200 and 400 students.

“We were concerned about the quality of instruction, and the disruption to focus that comes with being homeless,” O’Connell says. The work likely paid off: the school’s test scores ranked in the top 10 in the state of New York.

Beneficial donations

The storm’s destructive path helped pave the way for needed upgrades and new technology that schools would not have otherwise received.

In the Seaside Heights School District in Seaside Heights, N.J., the Hugh J. Boyd Elementary School was one of the hardest hit in the area. The school was swamped with two feet of flood water, and suffered about $2 million in damages, says district business administrator Kevin O’Shea.

Seaside Heights benefited from a $4.5 million donation from the United Arab Emirates to improve school technology at 30 storm-damaged New Jersey schools. With its $200,000 share, the district will be able to purchase new computers, wireless internet, and personal devices to launch its 1-to-1 program.

“That’s the beauty of the storm—we wouldn’t have been able to afford these devices if not for the generosity of others,” says Superintendent Tom Parlapanides.

Three weeks after the storm, elementary students were moved into the neighboring Central Regional School District’s high school, one of the highest points in the area. The flooded and mold-infested school was gutted, and the carpet replaced with tile, which will improve air quality, Parlapanides says.

The roof was also replaced, as were the gym floors and heating and air conditioning systems. The school reopened in September.

In addition, administrators had to navigate the district’s insurance policy and FEMA’s requirements for intense documentation to get funds to reopen the school this year, O’Shea says.

“I had to embark on a large amount of expenditures for major constructions not knowing how much would come out of our district coffer, FEMA, or insurance,” O’Shea says. “We had to proceed with a lot of caution, and work through the most critical expenditures first.”

He met with insurance and FEMA officials, and the district auditors. O’Shea used money in capital and maintenance reserves for upfront construction costs while waiting to be reimbursed by insurance and FEMA.

By late August, Seaside Heights School District had received about $500,000 from insurance, about $70,000 from FEMA, and awaits more funding, O’Shea says. Meanwhile, more than $60,000 in donations came in for classroom and cafeteria supplies.

“Politically, administrators may be under pressure from the board of ed and other powers that be to keep taxes low and not save up money in reserves,” O’Shea says, “but having that money and being able to finance these projects was the best thing for us.”

Alison DeNisco is staff writer.

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