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As Florence Arrives, Carolina School Officials Anxious But Hope For the Best

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Hurricane Florence pummeled North Carolina with ferocious winds and rain after it made landfall near Wrightsville Beach as a Category 1 storm early Friday morning.

Florence, which was downgraded to a tropical storm, left three dead in North Carolina and more than 600,000 customers in North Carolina and about 90,000 in South Carolina in the dark. In the city of New Bern, hundreds were rescued after being trapped by floodwaters after the Neuse River flooded parts of the city.

Tim Markley, the superintendent of New Hanover County Schools in Wilmington, ventured outside Friday morning during a lull in the storm, but was only able to make it around the block before his path was blocked by fallen trees.

"It's still a slow-moving storm, but at least it's moving," said Markley, who was among the thousands of customers without power.

Markley was waiting for power to return before inspecting schools. It will be days before he makes it out to Wrightsville Beach. He said he's worried about damage to one of the district's schools.

Five of the district's schools are serving as shelters, and while there was "some leaking" at a some of them on Friday night, the shelters continued to operate, he said. They were all equipped with back-up generators, he said.

The storm, which is moving slowly at 5 miles per hour, is expected to linger through the weekend, and authorities in North Carolina warned that every part of the state was likely to feel some impact, including its mountainous western part, which could experience landslides.  

On Friday afternoon North Carolina authorities reported three deaths as a result of the storm, with others under investigation. The deaths included a mother and infant who died when a tree fell on their home in Wilmington, an individual in Pender County who suffered a heart attack, and another who died while plugging in a generator in Lenoir County, the New York Times reported.

Before Florence hit the Carolinas, school officials told Education Week on Thursday that they were worried about the massive amounts of rain the storm is expected to dump in the region.

Whatever relief they felt when Hurricane Florence was downgraded from a Category 4 to a Category 2 storm was quickly replaced with anxiety over the widespread flooding that could result from the storm's effects lingering into next week.

"Thirty inches of rain is obviously going to cause an issue—[including] leaking and flooding," Markley said. "We've got 45 schools; so, it's something we'll watch."

Two schools on Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach, the latter of which was damaged in a storm about 15 years ago, are of particular concern, Markley said.

On Thursday, the governors in North Carolina and South Carolina made last-minute pleas to residents in low-lying areas to leave. More than 12,000 people were in shelters in North Carolina as of Thursday afternoon, North Carolina's Gov. Roy Cooper said Thursday. 

The National Hurricane Center predicted a dangerous storm surge, and rainfall of between 20 to 30 inches, with 40 inches expected in some places. Even areas far inland in both states, as well as southwest Virginia, were expected to get up to 12 inches of rain.

More than 1.1 million students in North Carolina and about 450,000 in South Carolina were affected by storm-related school closures. Schools from South Virginia to Virginia closed in advance of the storm, with some shuttering as early as Tuesday. 

By Friday morning, Beaufort County, S.C., was only projected to receive one inch of rain, and superintendent Herbert Berg's staff was already out inspecting schools and contemplating opening early next week.

The district decided by noon that it would reopen on Monday.

Berg closed schools on Tuesday when Florence was expected to hit the Carolinas as a Category 4 hurricane.

He has no regrets about the early closure, especially in the vast county with 22,000 students, many of whom take buses to school. 

"You have to err on the side of safety," Berg said.

Berg was initially worried about whether all staff members would be able to return in time for classes on Monday. About 25 percent of the faculty evacuated when South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster ordered mandatory evacuations of Beaufort and other low-lying counties last week. 

While some went to nearby Atlanta, others traveled as far as Ohio and Indiana, he said. They would likely face damaged roadways, downed trees, power outages and other roadblocks on their way back, which could delay their return, he said.

On Thursday, Horry County, S.C., Superintendent Rick Maxey was worried that the combination of excessive rainfall coupled with tropical storm-force winds could lead to more trees falling on electrical lines, extended electrical outages, and a prolonged recovery, he said. About 2,500 evacuees had sought refuge in six public shelters in the district's schools late Thursday. 

Still, as the winds picked up on Thursday afternoon, Maxey was hoping for the best.

"I am just hoping and praying that we're going to be able to get through the next couple of days with as minimal damage as possible, and I extend that to the community, and citizens, and of course our students and their families," he said.

Maxey has lived through tropical storms. His first in South Carolina was Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

"I've been here almost 30 years as a resident of Horry County," he said. "I don't think you ever get accustomed to it, but you recognize what it going to happened before, during, and after a storm when you've lived through so many of them."

Markley, the New Hanover County superintendent, spent much of Thursday visiting schools, five of which are serving as shelters for residents and families who had not evacuated. He also checked in on emergency operation centers. As of early Thursday, three of the five shelters in the district's schools were full, he said.

One of those schools was overseen by Heather Byers, the principal of Eaton Elementary School.

Byers, whose own family left town because they weren't sure that their house would be able to withstand Hurricane Florence's wrath, planned to stay at the shelter through the weekend or until she was relieved. She said she was happy to help "provide some shelter and support" to families who may not have had the means to leave or family outside of the area with whom to stay.

Before schools closed on Tuesday, principals and staff went through their hurricane-preparation checklist to secure buildings, including storing equipment, unplugging items, and elevating others that could be damaged in the event of a flood.

Even before the district shut down, Markley had been in touch with the state Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson about possibly obtaining waivers for missed instructional days.

For now, Markley, who lives is Kure Beach, is just waiting out the storm with family in Wilmington.

"Everyone is sort of hunkered down," he said Thursday afternoon.

Photo caption: Civilian Crisis Response Team volunteer Amber Hersel helps rescue 7-year-old Keiyana Cromartie and her family from their flooded home on Sept. 14, in James City, N.C., after Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina as a Category 1 storm.

--Chip Somodevilla/Getty



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