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Nicholas Harvey was named assistant superintendent of Lenoir County Public Schools five months before Hurricane Matthew barreled past the North Carolina coast and caused massive flooding as far inland as Kinston. He held that same position, which includes supervision over school operations, when Hurricane Florence devastated Lenoir County last year.

A former teacher and principal, he is an educator at heart. But he’s becoming well-versed on weather systems and flooding. It’s now a part of the job for anyone involved in education in eastern North Carolina.

“The first website I visit every morning is the National Hurricane Center,” he said. “That’s not an exaggeration. Every day. Because sometimes you go to bed and everything looks calm, and then you wake up and check and there’s three systems floating out there. We’re constantly monitoring and learning about them.”

The learning, Harvey says, is the key. In the past three years, there have been three 500-year floods in North Carolina, and that means school systems need to get better at handling them if they want to further their mission of educating children.

“Hopefully we won’t continue to have to deal with this so much,” Harvey said. “But in case we’re presented with it, we’re better prepared every time.”

Harvey is a Kinston native. Though he wasn’t here when Hurricane Floyd struck in 1999, he remembers talking to locals afterward.

“There was just this feeling that we weren’t ready,” he said. “We weren’t prepared for that amount of water to inundate homes and businesses and for the displacement of so many of our students and families.”

A number of changes have been made since Floyd. Lessons learned from Matthew and Florence, for instance, made the county more prepared for Hurricane Dorian this month. Communication was improved between the school system and emergency management, more emphasis was put on lesson banks for students to use while schools were closed, and smoother partnerships were set up between the school system and county.

“We definitely have come a long way over these past few years,” school board chair Keith King said. 

Harvey says he speaks to emergency management and law enforcement personnel so much that he keeps them on speed dial.

“It’s not just during hurricanes,” he said, “it’s during winter weather and fog or whatever. We’re always communicating. Because we’re not on an island, we’ve got to work together. And working together, I believe we’ve been able to save millions and millions of dollars by preparing before the waters arrive.”

It starts as the weather reports place a storm system on a trajectory toward North Carolina. Harvey said the county has been pivotal in inviting key agency stakeholders to gather around a table, including emergency management, law enforcement and first responders, school system officials, department of health and safety, and others. They’ll listen to live weather briefings, go around the table to discuss what they heard, and take turns talking about their department concerns and needs.

When a storm is about five days away, school system officials begin taking specific actions. First, they discontinue food deliveries. Next, they catalog equipment and furniture and start lifting them off the ground, securing them at higher levels. Having experienced massive flooding at its bus depots, the school system will also move buses to higher ground so they are available for service during evacuations.

The central office asks school counselors to prepare spreadsheets for students — an effort to gather basic information and also convey safety tips. They also developed a website where parents can check in and update their living situation in the event of displacement.

After Matthew, it took weeks to locate students. But family whereabouts are vital to communicating school restart dates and times, as well as figuring out new bus routes to accommodate displaced children.

“When the storms hit, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Harvey said. “We need as much information beforehand and then we have to give them ways to let us know where they are.”

After the storm, there’s no telling how long schools will be closed. Following Matthew, Lenoir County Public Schools closed for 12 days. After Florence, the system closed for 11.

“We just don’t know,” Harvey said. “But it’s hard no matter what. It’s like starting the school year all over again.”

So finding ways to keep students engaged and providing lesson opportunities are important to prevent students from falling behind. Lenoir is a 1:1 school district, with every student having either an iPad or MacBook Air. Students have access to Canvas and E-Backpack, which allows them to download lessons to their device’s hard drive — making them available even if WiFi is down.

“So they have a bank of lessons to work from,” Harvey said. “They can access modules, and they don’t need an Internet connection.”

Harvey said the central office and county educators are becoming accustomed to wearing two hats: one serving the students’ educational opportunity and another serving the communities’ disaster recovery needs. It’s a challenge, but he believes the better the school system gets at minimizing impact from storms, and the faster it gets back to instruction, the better it is for the entire community.

“We are the lifeblood of the community,” Harvey said. “Once schools restart, people feel normal again. Parents restart home life and athletic events start up and all those other things. Everyone starts back into their routines again. And so we want to get back to that as soon as possible, which means we’ve got to get the schools back as soon as possible. And we’re getting better and better at it.”

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria is the equity and learning differences reporter at EducationNC. He exists to shine light, including by telling stories about under-reported issues.