When Disaster Strikes Your Schools

By Lawrence Hardy

Susana Flores was 12 days into her first year of teaching when the call came to evacuate. It was a Wednesday night, and staff members at Ball High School in Galveston, Texas, were expecting to report for a half day’s work the next day. But officials at the district office, mindful of the traffic jams that snarled the flight from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita three years earlier, weren’t taking any chances.

“They decided, ‘Just forget it,’” Flores says, recalling the automated call she received that evening -- three days before Hurricane Ike struck the Texas coast. “You’re not coming back. Get out of here.”

Those weren’t the exact words, of course, but that was the message. A school year that began so promisingly -- with the 23-year-old biology teacher working 12-hour days (and loving it), planning for the semester, and looking forward to learning from her peers -- was halted.

Disasters come in many forms, both natural and manmade, but school districts that are prepared for the worst are better able to get back up and running in the aftermath. Preparedness plans help district leaders coordinate when schools should close, how to communicate to staff and parents, and thousands of other details big and small.

Hurricanes are among the most dreaded natural disasters, and after Hurricane Katrina, the fears of those living along the Gulf Coast are heightened. But schools can take steps to restore order and resume operations after such an event.

Amid the devastation of Hurricane Ike, Galveston opened schools on Oct. 7, just three weeks after the storm made landfall. More than 60 percent of the 7,600 students showed up -- a relatively large turnout considering the tremendous upheaval the district and community had suffered. Teachers and principals helped students deal with the aftermath of the storm, rather than on start right in on academics.

“Actually, I think it went very well,” board President Andrew Mytelka says of the day classes resumed. “All the kids and teachers were excited to be back.”

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