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Educators look for next steps amid Craven County’s Florence aftermath

When Jacklin Masalisali and her 15-year-old son Sovere returned Monday to New Bern after fleeing in the wake of Hurricane Florence, they found their home ruined by flooding that reached the second floor of their apartment complex. 

“We’re gonna get a new apartment,” said Sovere, a New Bern High School student, who said that is what he heard will happen. Jacklin fixed her hair for a picture. Their neighborhood Cooper’s Landing was one of many that was hit by winds, rainwater, and flooding from nearby rivers in New Bern and in many towns up and down the coast last week. Nearby 23-year-old neighbor Eh Bah had just spent multiple hours removing water-logged materials from his apartment. “I really don’t have a place to live,” he said. 

So far the storm has taken 27 lives in North Carolina and 10 more in South Carolina and Virginia. New Bern City officials said Monday more than 800 residents were rescued from their flooded homes. 

Jacklin Masalisali at the doorway of her flooded home. Liz Bell/EducationNC

Many communities are waiting for residual flooding as rivers crest. The storm’s impact is not limited to eastern towns and schools. Wednesday, Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson visited Harnett County schools in Erwin to see damage in hallways, gymnasiums, and classrooms — both Triton High School and Gentry Primary School. 

“We are not even to I-95 yet,” Johnson said. “We’re already seeing a high school that’s suffered some pretty severe damage.” He said he will be visiting regions farther east as floodwaters recede and damaged areas become accessible. Getting students back in school who have already missed a week and a half is Johnson’s priority.

“We are not even to I-95 yet,” Superintendent Johnson, while visiting Harnett County Schools Wednesday

“It is going to be important that we all focus and work together to get life back to normal as quickly as possible for these students,” Johnson said. He said he is working with the state to ensure calendar flexibility, a major concern from administrators, and that missed days will be forgiven, as was the case after Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

State Superintendent Johnson and Harnett County Superintendent Aaron Fleming examine the gymnasium of Triton High School, which was flooded while acting as a shelter for Hurricane Florence evacuees. Liz Bell/EducationNC

Most of the stormwater has receded in New Bern, but only a fraction of residents have returned to assess damage and start clean-up. As Craven County principals and teachers walked down streets, knocking on doors and handing out fliers with Samaritan’s Purse contact information and clean-up options, many knocks went unanswered. 

One young boy ran to his front door, calling out and waving to his principal, Erica Phillips, as she walked past and told parents to check her school J.T. Barber Elementary’s Facebook page for information on when students head back to school and resources to help with damage and displacement. 

Dan Palimetakis, principal at Vanceboro Farm Life Elementary School, stopped passing cars to let residents know crews from Samaritan’s Purse could help for free. He ended each interaction with “God bless you.” Palimetakis’s school is still unreachable due to flooding.

Several Craven County schools suffered flood damage, and multiple schools have been used as shelters. It is unclear when schools will be ready for students to return. For Phillips, who said her elementary school’s auditorium flooded up to its fourteenth row of bleachers, her priority is caring for those in her school who are still in shock.

“There’s a lot of moving parts to get us back into school,” Phillips said. “It’s not a quick and easy fix, because we still have families that are in distress. The teachers, the administrators in the schools, the volunteers, the subs that are in our schools, the bus drivers, the classified, the licensed, we’re all in distress right now. And we’re trying to pick up the pieces. I mean, six of my teachers lost their homes. Everything. That first house we stopped at? That was one of my teachers. She lost everything.”

Inside a teacher’s flooded home in New Bern. Liz Bell/EducationNC

When Eleanor Patrick, principal of Oaks Road Academy, spent Monday gutting homes and visiting with students’ families, she said every student she saw asked the same questions. 

“They wanted to know when they could go back to school, and if their teacher is ok, and would they be there when they got back,” Patrick said. “Every kid asked that. So I think just getting them back into their routine will be the next best thing that we can do. Because they are looking for that stability that school often provides.”

Patrick estimated 50 percent of her 400 students had serious damage to their homes. She said the best way to describe the conditions she saw is “heart-wrenching.”

“For many of them, they’re picking up baby pictures or the family Bible,” she said. “I think many were just in a state of disbelief. They knew maybe a little water would get in, but nothing to this magnitude. Many families are shoveling whatever they can salvage into the back of a car, they’re staying with different people. It just was, it was a lot.”

But Phillips said getting back to school is more complicated with teachers and staff members who have just lost their homes.  

“For us to get back to where we need to be, it’s gonna take some time,” Phillips said. “Because you can’t say, ‘Ok, we’re gonna start school.’ Well we don’t have teachers that are back in the building yet.”

“So it’s big. It’s moving pieces. Things have to fall into place.” – Erica Phillips, J.T. Barber Elementary School principal

“And then you’ve got insurance adjusters that teachers are gonna have to go meet. Well if you call on a sub, the sub is not gonna go because then they have an insurance adjuster. So it’s big. It’s moving pieces. Things have to fall into place.”

Phillips said she wants to communicate to families that they do not have to go through the initial cleaning and recovery process alone.

“This is a time when the community has to pull together,” she said. “No one individual can do it alone, and you can’t be proud to ask for help. And some people may not ask for help…because a lot of people are like, ‘Well, I don’t have insurance so I can’t afford to do it.’ But we want to let them know the services are free.” 

J.T. Barber Elementary Principal Erica Phillips visits flooded neighborhoods to pass out clean-up information. Liz Bell/EducationNC
Hurricane Florence’s floodwaters reached the top of the brick of these apartment complexes. Liz Bell/EducationNC

Phillips said families need monetary assistance — cash and gift cards — more than anything else. 

“Who better knows what they need when they go into the store to get it than the person who has lost everything…We want to be able to rebuild successfully. We want to rebuild and have our own. And you’re talking about people who have lost their homes they lived in for 30 years. So I think at this point it’s more of a…financial situation.”

New Bern Mayor Dana Outlaw has estimated the city to have $32 million in residential home damage and about $18 million in commercial costs. Stores downtown Tuesday were attempting to dry merchandise. Residents who live onboard boats permanently were returning to assess their water-crafts. 

Liz Bell/EducationNC
One of New Bern’s painted bears that dislodged during Hurricane Florence. Liz Bell/EducationNC

When students get back to school, physical and emotional impacts on students and families will remain. School counselors, Patrick said, have started to reach out to families to understand students’ experiences. She said she wants the rest of the state to not forget the ongoing needs of Florence’s victims. 

“This is not going to be a quick turnaround,” she said. “They’re going to need support for a while to come, that folks don’t need to forget that. That in a few weeks, kids are still going to need clothing. When the season changes, they’re not going to have fall or winter clothing. Because they are truly starting over from scratch. So that would be the next thing I would say, is for folks to know that they’re going to need some long-term help.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.