Policy Analysis | May 2011

Schools and Natural Disasters

Jonathan Watts Hull

A strong band of storms ripped through the South last week, spawning the deadliest tornado outbreak since 1932, with at least 329 people reported dead across seven states, including 238 dead reported in Alabama alone. Among the hardest hit areas of Alabama was Tuscaloosa, home to the more than 30,000 students of the University of Alabama. The storms displaced thousands more and laid waste to homes, businesses, schools and other civic buildings.

While spared a direct hit from the Tornados, the University opted to close weeks ahead of schedule and allow students, many of whom hail from areas also affected by the storm, to return home. Other schools in the state also were affected, including 18 that suffered heavy damage. The Alabama Legislature quickly approved legislation to allow the state superintendent of schools to shorten the school year for districts affected by the storms. The Legislature also approved by voice vote a resolution promising to appropriate whatever funds were needed to repair or rebuild tornado-damaged schools. In Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal ordered a review of the state's severe weather warning system to ensure that the system was fully operational and to determine gaps, if any, in coverage.

This immediate response was welcome news to schools and students in Alabama, but the storms reopened a debate about how schools respond to disasters. Alabama has unfortunate experience with this, with a Force 4 tornado striking Enterprise High School on March 1, 2007, collapsing part of the school and killing nine (the first school fatalities due to a tornado since 1990). Following that disaster, the state allocated funds to supplement federal and insurance money to rebuild the school, with a new 525,000-square-foot facility (now equipped with a tornado warning siren) opening three years later, the largest public school in the southeast.

Schools and districts are recommended to have emergency preparedness plans, and at least 32 states (including Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia) require schools to have them. The National Center for Educational Facilities provides resources for schools and districts on developing and implementing strong emergency management plans which include preparedness, response and recovery (for example, Florida's, Kentucky's and California's Crisis Response in a Box). Within these plans, there is an increasing awareness that schools need to plan carefully and thoroughly for how to prepare for a disaster with students with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency (LEP). Project REDD, out of Texas A&M University, offers extensive guidance on serving students with disabilities who are considerably more vulnerable than the general population during as well as following a disaster. Clear and comprehensive planning for LEP students will help to ensure that they are not placed at greater risk than the general population due to their possible inability to understand warnings and instructions provided in English.

The federal government provides some limited support for the development of emergency response plans through the Emergency Response and Crisis Management Grant Program, which distributed $29,000,000 in grants to school districts in 2010. Most states offer technical support, training and guidance to school districts on their emergency response plans, and Alabama, Missouri and Tennessee are among only 11 states nationally that provided state support to districts for this planning.

Beyond the cleanup and rebuilding, however, schools must address a wide range of issues following a natural disaster or other catastrophic event. Students returning to schools face challenges relating to trauma, dislocation, stress and uncertainty. Children, especially young children, need immediate support in learning how to manage their emotional response to an emergency event, support that may often be only available in schools. The National Association of School Psychologists provides considerable guidance on this issue, as does the American Pediatrics Association. Among the most important components of "moving on" is the quick resumption of routines, including the return to classes when possible. To do this, however, it may be necessary for schools to move into new facilities or share space in existing space with students from other parts of an affected area. Counseling and support are of critical importance, and may be needed even after the physical recovery from the disaster is completed. Reports from previous, large-scale disasters, including Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, indicate that trauma may continue to plague schoolchildren for years after the event.

As the communities across the South clean up from the April tornados that swept the region and begin to address the long-term consequences, state policymakers are looking toward an active hurricane season and the potential of still further tornado activity. Further west, rains in the upper Midwest are causing the Mississippi River to rise to alarming levels, flooding communities and displacing students and their families, even as communities in Texas are dealing with drought fueled wildfires that have scorched more than a million acres of the state. For schools and school districts across the region, it would seem to be a good time to make sure that their emergency plans are up to date and understood by school faculty, administrators, and members of the community.