Roger Alvey was superintendent of Elmwood CUSD 322 when that district was struck by an EF2 tornado in 2010. Now the superintendent of Illini Bluffs CUSD 327, Alvey began this piece in the immediate aftermath of the Washington tornado. Most of the Washington school administrators mention him by name and say this information has been a huge help in their transition and recovery effort.
As superintendents, we are trained to prepare for events leading up to natural disasters. We develop crisis plans, conduct mandated drills and make preparations to protect our students to be safe in the event that something of great magnitude occurs. This preparation typically takes us through the events leading up to the occurrence of a serious incident, such as a fire, flood, tornado, etc. But in the days, weeks, months and years following a natural disaster, we tend to be woefully unprepared to see long into the future and to anticipate what issues and obstacles that will face us both personally and from an organizational standpoint.
In my own experience in having dealt with a tornado in the Elmwood school district, and an unanticipated flood more recently, it became evident that clearly-identifiable processes and procedures to follow in the days following natural disasters and in the long term were simply not part of my administrative training and preparation. I strongly feel that having a working document or resource, as well as some amount of professional development, would assist us in our efforts to recover and would be incredibly beneficial to our students, districts and communities.
It is natural to be overwhelmed physically, emotionally and psychologically following a significant event. For those who have never been through it, there is an initial feeling of shock and disbelief. It becomes even more complicated when the event affects you, personally, in the loss of material possessions or perhaps your entire dwelling, as evidenced by three of my superintendent colleagues who lost their homes in last November’s tornado outbreak. Imagine the stress placed on these individuals in attempting to run school districts while simultaneously attempting to care for their own families! It is extremely difficult to see any length of time into the future when the immediate concern is where you might find a place to live and provide for your own family.
Every natural disaster is unique in its own right. Tornadoes, in particular, are unpredictable in scope, location, strength, direction and time on the ground. Because of their unpredictable nature, recovering from such events becomes unique, each with its own individual set of circumstances. The Elmwood tornado of four years ago, for example, decimated the business district. Recent tornadoes in the greater Peoria area destroyed residential areas. Situations require different thought processes and approaches to recovery efforts. However, there are common themes. The following is a list of things for school superintendents, and all school leaders, to consider in the wake of a tornado:
Step 1 — Assessment
The first 48 hours
Law enforcement and government officials will take over at some point, usually in the first hour or two following the event. Leading up to that takeover, school officials need to first consider the extent of injuries and/or fatalities and then the damage to school property by asking these questions:
• Has the school been damaged? If not, can it serve as a community center or triage center?
• Does the community know they have access to the school in the event school officials are not reachable? Communication can be difficult or impossible.
• Are the buses usable? Are school bus drivers reachable? Can buses be used to transport both injured and non-injured to triage centers, assuming roads are passable?
• Are generators available and operable, to provide light and/or heating and cooling (depending on the time of year)?
• Has the district contacted insurance? Is someone taking pictures of damage? Is someone logging conversations and documents for insurance purposes?
• Is someone keeping track of hours worked by school personnel? This can be used later for state or federal assistance (IEMA or FEMA), which could fill the gaps in coverage from insurance, minus the deductible.
• Is someone designated to handle returning calls, texts and other messages from people simply wanting to see how the school is doing and to offer assistance?
• Can any part of the school be opened to outside agencies and/or businesses to temporarily relocate?
• Do first responders have access to school resources (copy machines, fax machines, computers, restrooms, etc.), if needed?
Step 2 — Communication
The first 48 hours
• Does the school have power? If not, what means of communication will be used to reach parents?
• Are landline phones down? Are cell phones working? If voice data is out, can school officials send texts?
• Is social media available?
• Have regular community meetings been scheduled in order to communicate with the general public? Remember, many affected homeowners have no contact with the outside world via the media, and are generally overwhelmed with addressing their own needs.
• When or if school can be resumed, what activities need to be cancelled, and for how long? How will cancellations be communicated?
Step 3 — Changing Mood
Day 3 to Day 7
During the first 48 hours, people are incredibly busy assisting each other, and there is generally a feeling of esprit de corps. Donations pour in from the outside, and many stories of heroism and self-sacrifice emerge. Unfortunately, the mood begins to change as homeowners are barred from their homes out of concern for safety, curfews are enforced, and the emotional high begins to wear off. Homeowners are turned away, and in some instances, not even allowed to re-enter their dwellings. The mood shifts to a negative tone as people realize the severity and magnitude of the situation. Unless the school has taken a direct hit, leaders can formulate a plan to resume school in an effort to regain some amount of normalcy:
• Have arrangements been made for counselors to be available for students traumatized by the event?
• Can district employees make it to work?
• Are buses able to run routes, or do routes need to be altered due to impassable roads or because of lack of students due to destroyed homes?
• Can the district expand bus routes into neighboring districts to accommodate parents that might have relocated with friends and family? How far outside the district can students reasonably be accommodated? Will the district provide transportation even to students living in town, i.e. within 1.5 miles?
• Should the district excuse students from school for a period of time after school resumes, recognizing some are needed at their homes?
• Is it appropriate to allow the student body to assist the community clean-up efforts?
• Is someone continuing to update the list of damaged items for insurance purposes as well as hours worked by school personnel?
• Can the district help with fundraising or collection of household goods at the school?
• Has someone scheduled contractors to address any facilities needs due to damage?
Step 4 — Recovery
1 Week to 3 Months
Depending on the locality and severity of the worst damage, recovery for a school district will quickly include considering answers to the following questions:
• Should the district waive lunch fees for affected families? If so, how long does that last?
• Are there going to be residency issues? Are neighboring districts understanding of the situation?
• Has the school board amended the school calendar?
• Can the district resume practices?
• Can the district resume games and activities, or would it be inappropriate to conduct activities in light of the situation?
During this time, once school district needs are being appropriately addressed, district leaders can consider the extent they can offer community assistance. When homeowners and business owners begin to discover the amount of red tape associated with rebuilding efforts, local leaders from all community entities can work together to ease the transition to rebuilding.
Step 5 — Rebuilding
3 months to 3 years
As recovery continues, long-term rebuilding efforts will also be underway. Important long-term questions for school leaders include:
• What will be the effect of the loss of property on the district’s assessed valuation and for how long?
• How will enrollment be affected if there is inadequate housing for affected individuals?
• What effect will reduced attendance have on General State Aid?
• What ramifications might there be, relative to the IHSA participation, for students living outside of the district for an extended period of time?
• What is the projected loss of population and enrollment, due to businesses that have been shuttered resulting in the loss of jobs?
• How does the district intend to handle residency issues the year after the disaster (assuming students finish the school year in which the disaster happened) when houses are not complete?
• Is there a possibility that TIF dollars may be used in rebuilding efforts? If so, what effects will that have on district revenue? Can the district negotiate a term shorter than the traditional 23 years?
• How will the building season be a factor? Disasters in spring and summer provide for a lengthier building season. Disasters occurring in the fall and could mean an extra year of redevelopment.
• Is the district eligible for FEMA dollars? If so, does the district have adequate documentation to support the application?
Rebuilding efforts will eventually include celebrating successfully dealing with nature’s adversity. Recognizing that there is a mutually symbiotic relationship between school and community, develop a plan to celebrate successful recovery. For example, honor first responders and volunteers. Have media students assemble a video, set to music, which shows before the disaster, the immediate aftermath, and during and after rebuilding. Further documenting the celebrations and reactions can be used for positive public relations for school and community. Consider promoting these efforts in the media and writing a Governor’s Hometown Award application in recognition of Herculean efforts as a school and a community.
Through every step of the process, all school leaders should take care of their own health and that of their families during the incredibly trying time following a natural disaster. Consider reaching out to a network of colleagues for both professional input and for mental health. Superintendents are a proud group of professionals; most have a hard time reaching out for help, personally or professionally.
We need to emphasize to our colleagues in education that long-term planning is critical for the success of the district and the community following significant events. Likewise, we need to lean on each other during times of crisis and realize we have a network of folks to rely on.
I certainly do not purport to be an expert on recovery from natural disasters, but I do realize that our professional development is woefully inadequate relative to events of this magnitude and its respective recovery effort. We are not alone at the top, and we can make strides to assist our superintendents and administrators to not only survive epic events, but thrive in the process.