The Aftermath of Disaster

By Lawrence Hardy

2011 was barely half over when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared it one of the most extreme weather years on record.

By June, the nation already had witnessed record snowfall in the Northeast, a spate of deadly tornados in the South and Midwest, and a devastating drought in Texas that killed once-verdant pastures and forced farmers to auction their emaciated cattle at bargain-basement prices. The Lone Star State also had record heat -- and then it was scorched by wildfires.

Schools in Alabama and Missouri needed no official confirmation that 2011’s weather was unprecedented and singularly devastating. On April 27, a tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa, Ala., destroying or heavily damaging four public schools. More than 280 people died in storms across the South that day, and monetary losses topped $1 billion -- one of 10 separate weather events in 2011 that would total at least that same amount in damages.

Less than a month later, on May 20, another tornado decimated one third of Joplin, Mo., killing 160 people, including seven students and a school secretary, and injuring more than 900.

The immense floods that hit Vermont and New York state, and the hundreds of wildfires that raced across Texas would seem to represent polar-opposite disasters, yet both were fueled by the La Niña weather pattern that made the East unusually wet and the South unnaturally dry. And both the wildfires and the floods were spurred by tropical storms that blew through their respective regions.

The school districts in Bastrop, Texas, and Schoharie, N.Y., which are profiled in the following pages also share some other commonalities. Certainly, schools all across the country are affected by the continuing economic slump, making do with less even as student populations keep expanding. But in Texas and New York, schools were suffering inordinate financial distress even before their respective disasters.

In Texas, the state legislature has cut more than $4 billion in aid to public schools this year and refused to tap into its $6 billion rainy day fund, despite enrollment gains for this year that were projected to be about 80,000.

In New York, the legislature has limited local property tax increases to 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is less, in all except the five largest districts. The measure prompted Moody’s Financial Services, a credit rating agency, to say in a July 5 report that the law put local governments and school districts in a precarious position and “is likely to put additional pressure on [their] finances and credit standing,” according to On Board, the monthly newspaper of the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA).

The twin disasters in Texas and New York were bound to stretch school budgets in affected districts even further but, in at least the initial weeks after the fires and floods, schools were most concerned about supporting their students, staff, and families, and in bringing their communities together. Volunteers came in to help from hundreds of miles away, and the amount of donated clothing and school supplies got to be more than the districts could handle. But the outpouring of support showed what people thought of their public schools -- and what the schools expected of themselves, regardless of circumstances.

“Although I can think of plenty of reasons to be proud of our schools and their leaders,” NYSSBA Executive Director Timothy G. Kremer wrote in On Board Online, “our response to this fall’s weather disasters is testimony to the unmatched community resources that reside in our public schools and our district leaders.”

Kremer, of course, was talking about his home state, but his words could apply equally to Texas or Missouri, Vermont or Alabama -- anywhere public schools faced unthinkable natural disasters but responded with uncommon resolve. 

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