As Many Focus on Houston, Other Coastal Schools Slammed by Harvey Still Ache
While national media attention is zeroing in on Houston and Beaumont where flooding waters are still hampering people from returning to their neighborhoods, several of the school districts where Hurricane Harvey first made landfall are now able to better get into their campuses, see the damage done, and some even plan to open on Tuesday.
John Quary, the superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Victoria in Texas, said he and others are still processing the past week's events as they work through repairing the damage after the Category 4 storm with 130 miles per hour winds hit their area. The diocese sponsors 12 diocesan private and parochial elementary schools and one private and two parochial high schools, which collectively educate more than 3,000 students. Several of those schools are just a few dozen miles from where Harvey's eye hit.
Unlike most Texas public schools that were just about to open when the storm barged in, the diocesan schools had started classes before Harvey arrived, so immediately students felt disruption when campuses closed early.
"In a word, 'extraordinarily' surprised would sum up our unexpected response to this storm," Quary said. "Though many of the school administrators are lifelong Texans, more accustomed to the threat and reality of hurricane living, Harvey was unprecedented and unparalleled for most Texas residents."
The heart of the diocese is in Victoria, which is 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, and known as "The Crossroads" in Southeast Texas because of its location within a two-hour drive of Corpus Christi, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. The storm lingered above the area for days before moving to Houston.
Quary said that the diocese made "typical preparations for hurricanes": windows were boarded, gas was turned off, doors were reinforced, yard décor and other lawn items were removed, so as not to be used as projectiles in the strong gale winds that were being predicted. Some schools closer to the threat took extra precautionary steps, wrapping library books in heavy sheets of plastic, placing all textbooks in trash bags and storing them in student lockers.
"Allowing students to assist with the preparation minimized their feelings of helplessness, while contributing to the overall school family work ethic," Quary said. "Everyone had a job to do, and as the adage goes, 'Many hands make light work.' "
Quary noted one way to prepare has changed as many of the documents his schools need to preserve are now digital and held in "clouds," adding, "the manual labor that used to go into taking and packing boxes of paper, as was done for Hurricanes Ike and Rita, by comparison, was fairly minimal. However, principals still took their asbestos manuals...a must have and a definite save!"
One of the campuses, St. Joseph High School, has a storm shelter known as a Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, Dome, and took in folks who had to evacuate their homes, coordinating with multiple city, county, state, and federal agencies, he said. Most schools reported minimal damage, a few leaks, broken windows, downed tree limbs and trees, lost home shingles, roof leaks, lost power, and the hassle of dealing with boiled water advisories. One principal's home was completely flooded, Quary said.
Once the power and water are at full capacity, hopefully by Saturday of Labor Day weekend, most students will be able to return to school by the following Tuesday. However, two campuses, Holy Cross of Bay City, and Our Lady of the Gulf, Port Lavaca, may have to wait a bit longer, due to their location near the gulf and its correlating flood zones.
Further down the coast
Other Texas districts lower on the southeastern coast where the eye landed didn't fare as well, such as Aransas County Independent School District and Port Aransas Independent School District, where the eye directly hit their communities, including Rockport, where the eye of the storm hit. Public schools were about to kick off the school year just as Harvey arrived.
"We do not have a timeline for how long the recovery process will take," Aransas County ISD Superintendent Joseph Patek said in a statement on the district's website. "We must first have drinkable water and power. After that, we must ensure our facilities are safe, and then we will be able to allow teaching staff in the buildings to look at their needs for supplies. All of this takes time, and each step must happen in a very specific manner."
Patek and his staff have constantly updated their Facebook page over the past week with announcements on closures, including confirmation that all five of its schools sustained damage and will be closed indefinitely. The district of about 3,400 students has partnered with its school foundation to help raise money for student supplies and instructional materials, the Corpus-Christi Caller Times reported.
In Port Aransas Independent School District, Superintendent Sharon McKinney said via the district's Facebook page that it could likely be four to six weeks before its three schools, which together serve about 544 students, would reopen. As of late Friday, school buses had been towed to get repairs, buildings were still being assessed, and parents had been given information on neighboring districts that would be able to enroll their kids. Both superintendents stressed in their online posts a desire to provide as much "normalcy" as they could to students, staff, and parents as soon as it's safe to return to campuses.
"Although it saddens me, I understand that some families may have to permanently relocate to another community as a result of this storm," McKinney said.
State education officials who serve the coastal area where Harvey's most violent winds hit said about eight of the 42 traditional school districts they serve sustained the worst damage. The Texas Education Agency runs 20 "education service centers" throughout the state to help serve as a conduit to school districts, with smaller and rural ones often relying on them for administrative support ecause of their smaller infrastructure and staffing levels.
"The majority of the damage has been structural," said Melissa Morin, a spokeswoman for Education Service Center, Region 2, serving the coastal areas devastated by Harvey's brutal impact. "But once the roof flies off, you can't avoid water damage to the floors or the equipment inside. We've heard from districts that teachers lost all their school supplies and instructional materials as they had been in their classrooms prepping them before the storm hit."
The TEA's Education Service Center, Region 2, based in Corpus Christi, has opened up its doors to be a space for educators to stage recovery efforts, be it for adminstrative work and/or helping teachers and staff convene. Morin's own office was orginally in the eye of the storm right on the shoreline, but at the last minute, Harvey headed north to Rockport, calming fears on how her organization would be able to assist 7,000 plus educators and 100,000 students in the 11 counties near the Texas coast that they service if damaged severely.
"As fas as lessons learned, you can never be too prepared, and while prepardness is important, what's paramount is making sure people are OK, and then can focus on safeguarding district records and equipment," Morin said. "I don't think some of these places hit will ever be the same again, so we have to acclimate to what may be the new normal, even for a couple of years. People love Port Aransas though, so I hope they come back, it's such a fun, beautiful community. In the meantime, we have to be focused on getting kids back in schools toward that goal."
Staying in touch
Morin said electronic communication really helped in the process of keeping state officials and school chiefs in touch while they hunkered down during the storm. Although at times, social media can more easily spread misinformation, the platforms came in handy to refute rumors that weren't true and keep people up-to-date in real time, Quary also mentioned.
Goliad Independent School District Superintendent Dave Plymale kept folks updated on both his own social media and the district's, posting photos of the damage in his district of 1,346 students. The district, roughly 70 miles from the coast, serves the entire rural county of 900 square miles, so the community is highly dependent on it staying open to get their kids to school near their homes.
Plymale said the winds peeled back the roof on its gym building, lifted it, and then knocked it into the roof of a nearby classroom wing, which led to water coming into classrooms. But he said they were able to get in there relatively quickly, unlike their peers to the north, because of constant rain and flooding. He said schools will open Sept. 5.
"The superintendents in our region have been great at offering support to one another and the folks with the education service centers in offering any guidance on all the paperwork ahead and resources we can tap into to get back on our feet," Plymale said. "We had no fatalities unlike some others in Texas, so that gives you some perspective on how to go about recovering and how much worse it could have been for us."
Quary agrees, quoting one principal whom he said, "so accurately reminded us, 'we don't get to choose the storms we must face, but we do get to choose how we respond to them."
Photo: Coaches and students at Rockport-Fulton High School in Aransas County ISD help clear debris from the football field that was left in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, on Aug. 29, in Rockport, Texas. Coaches, players and students at the high school helped with cleanup effforts at the school. (Eric Gay/AP)