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When disaster strikes, school officials learn lessons the hard way

Educator preparation programs don’t teach courses on disaster shelter management. So in eastern counties where hurricanes bring flooding, school officials and administrators are learning on the job.

As Hurricane Florence darkened North Carolina’s skies in September 2018 and weather reports warned of rain that would linger for days, Sampson County residents prepared for the worst. Using lessons learned from Hurricane Matthew two years before, the school system and county emergency management worked hand-in-hand to ensure that evacuating residents had a refuge.

A year later, as school officials look back, they applaud the preparation. But they acknowledge that it fell short, and they’re talking about lessons learned.

“It goes back to the old saying, ‘a fail to plan is a plan to fail,’” Sampson County school board member Tim Register said. “What happened to us before was that people got caught off guard.”

Sampson County Schools’ Board of Education worked with the school system and administrators to examine successes and failures during Hurricane Florence. Now, they’re developing protocols to make sure they aren’t caught off guard next time — paying particular attention to reducing stress on school administrators and making school shelters more efficient.

When Florence’s lingering rain flooded the Black River on the southern tip of the county, the school system was unprepared for the massive demands on its schools and its principals. Administrators spent days working at shelters without relief, and some shelters that were rushed into duty didn’t have generators that could meet all of the residents’ needs.

“Our staff would like to know in advance where they would be and where they would be needed,” said Mark Hammond, executive director of auxiliary services. “A part of that comes from our schools. We didn’t know exactly which one would be a shelter and which would not be a shelter.”

This was partly due to the differences in needs created by Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Matthew. With Matthew, which informed the preparations for Florence, power outages and road closures were primary challenges. But Florence’s volume of rain caused massive flooding in Sampson and forced more evacuations than Matthew had.

More than 3,000 people evacuated, and almost 100 other residents had to be rescued by boat or helicopter, according to the county’s emergency management services. The county initially opened five shelters, quickly adding four more within the first two days after Florence made landfall. In the end, the county required 11 general shelters, plus a special-needs shelter.

“That’s the first time we’ve ever opened that many shelters,” emergency management director Ronald Bass said. “In the past, we’ve opened maybe six or seven, but never 11.”

A working committee of the Sampson County Board of Education addressed this, and other challenges posed by Florence, ahead of the 2019 hurricane season. It designated Clinton, Lakewood, and Union high schools and Hobbton Middle School as primary shelters, and picked Sampson County Adult Day Care Center to take care of residents with special needs.

The committee also focused on procedures and information that should be shared with principals and administrators.

“So in the event that we have a disaster or hurricane, they will be prepared and they’ll know exactly what they’ve got to do at the various schools,” Hammond said.

A list and formal protocol allow for easy turnover among administrators working the shelters. Last year, that burden fell mostly on principals — and it wasn’t a short-term demand.

In the rush to serve the community, some principals were stuck at their schools without any plans for shift changes or any way for other administrators to get in and provide relief. Almost 100 roads were closed due to flooding.

“If a (principal) doesn’t want to be there for 24-hour shifts, then somebody needs to be lined up to come take that shift at the end of 12 hours or however long it runs,” Register said. “I just think that’s bad business to leave it out there floating around and not having a plan to address that part of it.”

Board Chair Kim Schmidlin added: “This can go on for a long time. We had a shelter open for six days. That is a lot to ask of our staff members. If there’s a designated secondary person, you want to make sure they know where all the switches are.”

Another issue was the efficacy of generators at shelters. Hammond said they weren’t sufficient for shelter operations at several schools. That increased safety concerns when the lights went out. Many schools had very small generators that would power only phone chargers and a light or two. 

But residents also showed up with oxygen tanks and other medical devices requiring power.

“So we need to be ready,” Hammond said.

During previous storms, the district had used tankers from the bus garage to provide fuel. During Florence, the county helped by sending public works employees with gas cans. But these aren’t reliable or sustainable solutions.

Hammond said county officials are seeking funds for a switch system and a large generator trailer that uses diesel fuel. The estimated amount of fuel is between 200 and 500 gallons.

At a board meeting last month, school officials talked in detail about all of these plans. And while there are many areas for improvement, they lauded the learning process.

“Everybody did a tremendous job, and everybody did a wonderful job getting through that,” Schmidlin said. “I appreciate the commitment in making sure that for the next hurricane or the next disaster situation, everybody will be prepared.”

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria was the equity and learning differences reporter for EducationNC from 2018 through October 2023.