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Pender County still walking long road to recovery

Debris remains in parts of Pender County. Piles of personal belongings, furniture and insulation are stacked at curbs in front of previously-flooded houses. Trees and branches are scattered amidst the roadsides. And for stretches along the highways, several feet of browned trees and bushes remind passersby where the water levels sat after Hurricane Florence passed through.

This community was among the eight hardest hit and is still walking the long road to recovery from the storm.

“We’ve gone through a tremendous event here,” said Tom Collins, the county’s emergency management director. “Just understand that this is one of the [most] severe events that’s ever hit Pender County. … Eventually, we’ll get back to some normalcy.”

Pender County Schools uses numerous dryers to clean up one of its schools. Courtesy of Pender County Schools

For school administrators, teachers, staff, students and their parents, however, the normalcy has been delayed. A few times.

Initially, school officials had hoped to get students back in school last week. That date was then pushed tentatively to Oct. 18. Now, most teachers are expected to return to schools on the 18th while bus drivers practice new routes — but students will not return until Oct. 22 and Oct. 23, though this staggered start is still dubbed “anticipated.”

The extent of storm damage, need for prior fund approval before contracting with repair workers, and the demand for workers elsewhere in other hard-hit counties have all conspired to push out the school start date. The storm left about 65 staffers and 600 students displaced from their homes. When officials got into the schools, they began efforts to dry wet buildings and remove wet items. But they couldn’t engage contractors for remediation efforts right away.

“By law, school systems cannot enter into repair contracts without possessing the funds to cover the contract,” Superintendent Steven Hill said. 

The district’s fund balance, as well as $4 million allotted by county commissioners for Florence repairs, were exhausted quickly given the extent of damage — and the necessary additional funds were not secured until last week. 

Also complicating things was the role the schools needed to play in the communities: Seven schools served as shelters and county schools provided approximately 1,500 meals to evacuees.

Still, the delay in resuming classes is significant. For reference, all students will hopefully be back in school (for their 12th day of the quarter) on Oct. 23. But when the school year began, Oct. 26 was slated to be the last day of the quarter.

Some parents have taken to Facebook and other platforms to voice frustration over the delays. Others were happy that Hill has been so forthcoming with updates.

“Never in our duration with Pender County Schools have we had the openness and the communication that we have had with Dr. Hill!!!” wrote one parent. “It is such an amazing thing as a parent to have constant communication and updates.”

Wrote another: “Thank you for keeping our children’s health and safety as well as all the administration and staff safe.”

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.