Unity in Disasters: Schools, Planners, and Natural Hazards

It’s a disturbing cycle: schools with high poverty rates and limited resources have the lowest-performing students, receive less funding, then even lower outcomes, which causes fewer people to want to move there, decreasing the tax base upon which resources are determined, and further depleting scarce resources.

Researchers, public officials, and leaders across disciplines are concerned with figuring out how to break the vicious relationship between poverty and education. Now, imagine a devastating hurricane thrown into that cycle. Classrooms are destroyed, the curriculum is disrupted, and students, teachers, and administrators are displaced. This is the situation faced by educators in eastern North Carolina after Hurricane Florence.

“Many of these schools were already in survival mode,” explains Dr. Cassandra R. Davis, Research Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She highlighted how detrimental the natural disaster was for the impacted school systems, facing incredibly high staff turnover rates.

“This kind of hiring would be difficult with the tax base and resource levels of Wake or Durham County – let alone in rural areas that were already struggling,” Dr. Davis said. When the media has taken their camera crews and journalists elsewhere, school administrators must learn to manage the after-effects of disasters in the same way that city planners move toward recovery in their municipalities.

Dr. Cassandra R. Davis is researching how Hurricane Harvey (2017) and Hurricane Matthew (2018) affected school districts in Texas and North Carolina, respectively. A major theme of her research is understanding the best ways to support educators during natural disasters and immediately following, including what professional development strategies can help them be more resilient.

Some school districts implemented mindfulness exercises into the curriculum as part of the community’s overall recovery efforts. Dr. Davis’s hypothesis is that attendance rates increase as a causal outcome of the mindfulness exercises, potentially a stirring outcome for school systems attempting to return to normalcy while operating in FEMA trailers.

The difficulty here is that the professionals involved aren’t personally removed from the effects of the disasters. “It’s not just the students being impacted,” Dr. Davis said. “It’s the staff, counselors, coaches, and teachers. They are supporting students in the most vulnerable times while also dealing with the disaster on a personal level.”

Heart-wrenching interviews with administrators unearthed touching personal stories, such as principals sleeping in their schools because they had lost their home while working to distribute supplies to their affected students. Teachers also had to worry if they would be paid during school closings.1 There is a parallel here to emergency responders, planning officials, and other local leaders who are individually dealing with the after-effects of a hurricane while helping to support and rebuild their communities.

The Cost of a Hurricane

An estimated 1.5 million students missed classes because of Hurricane Florence. Trenton Elementary and Jones Middle School are two of many locations closed permanently due to flood damage from the hurricane.2 Other schools in seven counties, like Robeson County, were closed for over a month following the storm, losing days that cannot be made up before the end of the school year..3 When classes resume, some students are returning to schools partially damaged. In New Hanover County, over 60% of schools sustained damage. There’s a difficult transition period once schools resume to a normal schedule.

“We see in school districts with lower resources that this timeline could be weeks to months to even years,” as Dr. Davis explained. While there is no baseline or standard across different school systems, Dr. Davis continued, “We do see consistencies with timelines on adjustments based on schools in suburban and rural areas.”

Planners may be interested to know that the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvements Act of 2001 protects the right of students to attend school when facing hardships from homelessness..4 It includes provisions for a student to attend their “school of origin,” or the last place they were enrolled, regardless of a temporary housing situation outside of the school district or if they are missing enrollment records.5 School districts are required to provide transportation and ensure access to all programs and services for these students. The North Carolina Homeless Education Program serves as a liaison for displaced students and school systems..6 In reality, however, students may end up leaving the school district with their families, causing a decrease in the enrollment and tax base for that county.

Planners are often concerned with the desirability of their municipality, which impacts whether people buy homes in their area and enroll their children in the local school district. While school ratings may not be considered in a planner’s purview, the impact of their relative success or failure extends to the local housing market, community development, and economy.

In October, the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) reported $14 million for food service federal reimbursement and $2 million in food and equipment losses to the North Carolina Department of Education.7 These figures don’t illuminate the structural costs of school buildings that were flooded or condemned from issues like mold. North Carolina’s state legislature re-appropriated funds from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Hurricane Florence Agricultural Disaster Program of 2018 to pass a bill that supporting school systems following Florence.

Once passed into the law, Senate Bill 823 will allocate $23.5 million for the repair and rebuilding of schools and $1.5 million for food and nutrition equipment and supplies..8 It would also prevent principals’ salaries from being cut due to low enrollment of displaced students. In mid-November, NCDPI set aside $25 million for schools impacted by Hurricane Florence.9 Planners may relate to the dilemmas of distribution of resources and funding: As you can see below, Robeson County School received the fewest funds yet had the highest number of schools impacted.

Given that the median cost of a high school in the United States is $45 million, school systems that were already struggling financially will have to grapple with funding sources..10 The 2015 20th Annual School Construction Report from School Planning and Management reported that the 4th study region–including North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee–spent $900 million in 2014 for the renovation of old schools, additions to new schools, and new construction, which likely will increase in the coming years from the damage done by hurricanes. Despite the additional aid from the North Carolina state legislature, there is a deficit of funds before schools in eastern North Carolina, still recovering from Matthew, will be able to rebuild and operate at full capacity again.

North Carolina also has a public insurance fund set aside specifically for schools. Hurricane Matthew required $14 million but the payout from Hurricane Florence was almost three times as much. The future sustainability of that fund, given the increasing severity of flooding events, is uncertain. Because schools have large square footage requirements, planners and public officials should proactively identify sites for reconstruction and relocation. As a planner, understanding what public assets are in the floodplain should inform comprehensive plans and land use decisions.

Horizontal and Vertical Integration: Hazard Mitigation Plans

Many school districts affected by Hurricane Florence had never, or only briefly, discussed the possibility of creating a school-specific hazard mitigation plan. Others were already operating under such limited resources that such an undertaking seemed impossible, even if the desire was present. However, within FEMA there is a department that has already created hazard mitigation plans specific to school systems. The difficulty is connecting already understaffed school systems with the capacity to fine-tune these lengthy documents to their local needs.

For Dr. Davis, it’s a matter of reframing this conversation. “The nature of the beast is that we have to focus on student outcomes,” she said. Centering the hazard mitigation discussion on student outcomes will hopefully accomplish this. Dr. Davis’s research will link responses with student outcomes to present the best practices back to the school districts. This evidence-based approach aimed at teachers and school administrators will hopefully be more effective than 200-page disaster manuals that, if accessed at all, gather dust on the shelf.

What can planners do? There is a greater need for communication and collaboration across disciplines to address a community’s needs. “The hope is that people can have these cross-collaborations and these talks about how to really meet the local needs,” Dr. Davis elaborated. There is room here for dialogue among natural hazards resilience professionals, planners, and school administrators who face similar issues during and after a disaster.

Transportation planning has a role to play in this as well. Even if the school manages through a severe weather event unscathed, the routes for bus drivers to pick up schoolchildren can hinder the school schedule. Similarly, planners can support students when it comes to regulating housing. Aside from natural hazard mitigation in building codes and zoning ordinances, there’s a time-sensitive guardian role for planners and policymakers to fill immediately after a disaster.

A neighborhood in Pender County flooded after Hurricane Florence, and there were six to ten families unable to find transitional housing. These families struggled to find an available space that was within their budget, as those with housing raised prices immediately following the hurricane. These families were left to stay in tents on a nearby soccer field while they determined when (or if) they could return home. Planners need to be both timely in their response and creative in addressing housing solutions following disasters..11

Hazards professionals and planners would understand teachers’ and students’ desire to return to pre-disaster conditions. “There was a push to return to normalcy [right after the hurricane], although they might not completely articulate what normalcy is,” commented Dr. Davis. The pressure to restart a normal class schedule clashes with safety concerns for a school system. Similarly, planners face pressure to rebuild a town back to “normal,” even when pre-disaster conditions put residents at-risk in the first place.

School systems, similar to municipalities, must balance the choices for top-down decision-making with community engagement and participatory processes. “The desire from [these external organizations], who just want to help, to come in and support [schools] is a great thing, but causes additional anxiety for those trying to navigate the disaster,” Dr. Davis noticed in her interviews with school administrators. Teachers and administrators alike received top-down communication but would have “preferred more lateral movements,” especially when agencies swoop in to take over management of the school temporarily.

City planners with FEMA experience may relate; while the funding and resources of a larger agency are incredibly helpful, the logistics, decision-making process, and supply chain management of equipment and supplies is complicated when more officials are thrown in the mix.

Climate change isn’t only a concern for planners – school systems, shocked at the damage of Matthew and surprised by Florence, will need to inject hazards resilience into their school districts. “There needs to be a constant conversation around it,” Dr. Davis concluded, noting that planning ahead and understanding the needs of teachers will aid school systems in preparedness the next time around. While responding to a disaster may be overwhelming – and the timeline means a years-long recovery ahead – there is hope in the lessons that can be learned from these hurricanes in Texas and North Carolina. “There is some unity in disaster,” Dr. Davis noted that the sentiment among many educators was, “A community really came together.”

Dr. Cassandra Davis is a Research Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Within the last three years, Dr. Davis has held the role of principal investigator on four research evaluations totaling over $600,000.  The most recent of these projects funded the initial qualitative data collection of the impacts of Hurricanes Harvey and Matthew on public schools in Texas and North Carolina and two of these projects represented large-scale qualitative studies that specifically targeted underrepresented students. Dr. Davis has also collaborated with school districts to assist them with understanding and applying best practice strategies on topics related to improving graduation rates of underrepresented groups, supporting students with learning differences, identifying opportunity and achievement gaps amongst students, assessing the quality of professional development training for school personnel, and investigating ways to engage parents. Dr. Davis’ areas of interest include education policy, program evaluation, qualitative research methods, the social and historical context in education, and the impact of natural disaster on schools and communities. Dr. Davis holds a Ph.D. in Education from UNC Chapel Hill.

About the Author: Emily Paul is a first-year master’s student seeking dual degrees from the Department of City and Regional Planning and the Gillings School of Public Health. Her research interests involve how the built environment can address social justice issues and the impact of climate change and the environment on health. Prior to UNC, Emily earned her bachelor’s degree in urban & environmental planning and Spanish at the University of Virginia.

  1. Hui, T. Keung. “Teachers in Schools Hit Hard by Hurricane Florence Should Get Paid, NC Lawmakers Say.” News & Observer. Accessed December 11, 2018. https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/education/article219314285.html.
  2. Moody, Dominique. “Trenton Elementary, Jones Middle Closed for Remainder of Year.” WNCT. September 26, 2018. https://www.wnct.com/on-your-side/school-watch/trenton-elementary-jones-middle-closed-for-remainder-of-year/1477812750.
  3. Minch, Jessica. “Robeson County Schools to Open on Tuesday More than a Month after Closing Due to Florence.” WBTW. October 16, 2018. https://www.wbtw.com/news/state-regional/robeson-county-schools-to-open-on-tuesday-more-than-a-month-after-closing-due-to-florence/1525475253.
  4. “Part C – Homeless Education.” U.S. Department of Education. December 19, 2005. https://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/pg116.html.
  5. Joyce, Katherine. “School Districts Assessing Hurricane Damage; Several Still Facing Long Recovery Ahead.” North Carolina Association of School Administrators. September 20, 2018. https://www.ncasa.net/site/default.aspx?PageType=3&DomainID=4&ModuleInstanceID=9&ViewID=6446EE88-D30C-497E-9316-3F8874B3E108&RenderLoc=0&FlexDataID=3506&PageID=1.
  6. “Local Liaisons.” North Carolina Homeless Education Program. https://hepnc.uncg.edu/.
  7. “Losses to North Carolina Schools from Florence Worse than Hurricane Matthew.” Insurance Journal. October 11, 2018. https://www.insurancejournal.com/news/southeast/2018/10/11/504053.htm.
  8. Yelverton, Elizabeth. “NC Legislature Approves Additional $299M for Hurricane Relief, Including Measures for LEAS.” NCSSA | North Carolina School Superintendents Association. https://www.ncasa.net/site/default.aspx?PageType=3&DomainID=8&ModuleInstanceID=9&ViewID=6446EE88-D30C-497E-9316-3F8874B3E108&RenderLoc=0&FlexDataID=4573&PageID=9&Comments=true.
  9. Hui, T. Keung. “Gov. Cooper Sends $25 Million in Lottery Funds to Fix NC Schools Damaged by Florence.” News & Observer. https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article219694140.html.
  10. Abramson, Paul. “20th Annual School Construction Report.” School Planning & Management. February 2015. https://webspm.com/research/2015/02/annual-school-construction-report/asset.aspx?tc=assetpg.
  11. Schlemmer, Liz. “Schools May Not Have To Make Up Any Days For Florence.” WUNC. September 25, 2018. http://www.wunc.org/post/schools-may-not-have-make-any-days-florence#stream/0.