Hurricane 2019: What Tampa Bay school leaders fear most from a storm

When a hurricane threatens, school districts turn into storm shelters and educators turn into emergency workers.
Jasmine Walker sleeps next to the window as her 17-month-old son, DJ Woods, while taking shelter at St. Petersburg's John Hopkins Middle School while Hurricane Irma approached in 2017. The state's schools also serve as its storm shelters, which puts pressure on local school districts. [EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times]
Jasmine Walker sleeps next to the window as her 17-month-old son, DJ Woods, while taking shelter at St. Petersburg's John Hopkins Middle School while Hurricane Irma approached in 2017. The state's schools also serve as its storm shelters, which puts pressure on local school districts. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Published June 4

The Tampa Bay Times asked the bay area’s school superintendents to talk about their worst fears were a major storm to make landfall.

Their concerns echo the experiences of the Bay and Gulf county school districts, which were hit hard last year by Hurricane Michael: Florida’s schools turn into emergency shelters during a storm. But how quickly can those schools get back to educating students? What happens if evacuees have nowhere else to go?

Before Hurricane Irma blew by in 2017, Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning had no idea what to expect for the 75,000-student school system he runs. He had to figure out how to staff shelters and get people there, provide food, accommodate for pets and all sorts of issues he had never before encountered.

“We went from educating kids to sheltering families,” Browning said, “and it’s a totally different environment.”

HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane

Once the storm had passed and the evacuees had departed, the switch back to classes wasn’t quick and easy, either.

“That’s the part the public doesn’t understand,” he said. “The storm is past. It’s a Wednesday, and they want to know why schools aren’t open on Thursday.”

Deep cleaning and disinfecting takes time.

Two years later, Browning said he believes residents have a better appreciation for what the school district needs to do during and after a storm. And so, too, does his administrative team.

They’ve created a system to track and contact employees who volunteer to work in shelters. They’ve adopted the same online platform as the county emergency operations center, for better communication and collaboration. A group of leaders from the schools, county, law enforcement, fire rescue and others have met quarterly since Irma to conduct planning.

The district even has purchased kits to protect school carpets from pets that take shelter from the storm.

If a storm threatens, Browning said, “We’re better prepared.”

HURRICANE MICHAEL: LESSONS LEARNED

911 calls from Hurricane Michael paint horrifying picture of what it’s like to not evacuate

What the Panhandle’s top emergency officials learned from Michael

‘We’re not going to give up.’ What a school superintendent learned from Michael.

So what most worries the superintendent about hurricane season?

“I worry about the safety of our kids,” he said. “I worry about the destruction of property.”

He noted the Bay County school district in the Panhandle still hadn’t returned to normal eight months after Michael devastated the area. If schools are damaged, homes will be, too, he said.

There are some things, he observed, that all the preparations in the world cannot stop.

“I worry about the total disruption of life,” Browning said. “I feel good about where we are, but I worry about the disruption. And it doesn’t just affect the schools.”

Hillsborough: Sales tax bolsters shelters

Superintendent Jeff Eakins emphasized that the Hillsborough County School District’s most important task after a storm is to get schools and classes going again, to restore a sense of routine and normalcy.

“Aside from the obvious concerns such as the safety of our families and successfully sheltering our neighbors in our schools,” Eakins said in an email, “my biggest concern from a hurricane would be the need to get our campuses open and our students back in school as quickly as possible after the storm.

“When our schools are closed, our children are not learning, our parents have added stress and anxiety, our area’s economy grinds to a halt and — in some cases — our students can’t get a reliable meal at home."

Eakins said Irma provided a valuable test of the school district’s emergency procedures and systems. The district also spent the past 18 months setting up a system for tracking and repairing any storm damage suffered by schools.

Then there’s the half-penny sales tax referendum approved by voters in 2018. It will fund dozens of capital projects that will physically improve the schools themselves. Eakins said 13 school roofs are already scheduled to be replaced.

“Our average school is more than 50 years old,” he said, “so repairing or replacing worn-out parts of our buildings will make them better able to stand up to a storm.”

Hernando: Rebuilding for the long-term

The idea of a major hurricane barreling over Hernando County gave schools superintendent John Stratton a lot to worry about: Would students and parents and school employees be safe? Would the district’s buildings hold up as shelters? Would administrators be able to communicate, not just with each other — via antennae-based radios — but with the community?

But seeing the arduous road to recovery for Panhandle schools after Hurricane Michael taught Stratton this: Planning for the short-term effects of a storm and planning for the long-term effects require different mind-sets. That also raised another challenge: How would months or years of recovery change the school district?

“We can do it,” he said, “but we’re schools, and (long-term) means we’re not having school for a period of time.”

Once schools are done being used as shelters, he said, it would take slow and costly deep cleaning to make them suitable for students again. Faculty and staff may be left without homes in a destructive storm. And if lots of students’ families moved out of the district after the storm, it could see an abrupt drop in state funding.

The district recently signed memorandums of understanding with outside companies who specialize in disaster recovery — services like debris removal and building cleaning. Having those in place is an important step, Stratton said.

And he’s looked to the past few months in the Panhandle to grasp the scope further — to see that there are items, like socks and underwear, the district isn’t already stockpiling, to know that he’d have to promise to find a way to pay teachers and to realize that, in a worst-case scenario, the district would have to get “very creative.”

Pinellas: Focus is on reopening schools

Pinellas County schools are well-prepared for a hurricane to strike, said superintendent Mike Grego. Staff assignments were refined as recently as last year and schools are stocked with supplies.

A higher concern for the superintendent is getting campuses that serve as hurricane shelters back up and running once a storm has passed, to give families and their communities a bit of normalcy in the aftermath.

Pinellas housed more than 20,000 people during Hurricane Irma in 2017. Once the storm passed, 17 campuses had to be professionally sanitized. Classrooms that served as sleeping quarters had to be reorganized, and school buses used to evacuate residents had to be cleaned.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” Grego said. “And everything hinges on getting schools back going.”

Recent hurricanes have made his team consider how the burden on schools acting as shelters could be shifted to other facilities after a storm, so those schools could reopen sooner. He plans to share his ideas for “step-down” facilities with community leaders as the district finalizes plans for this hurricane season.

Those “step-down” buildings could open once a storm passes and evacuees could start leaving the schools sooner, which would help schools reopen faster.

“It would provide the schools the opportunity to get back up and running,” Grego said. “That’s the one thing we have noticed a need for.”


2019 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane

PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Get your documents and your data ready for a storm

BUILD YOUR KIT: The stuff you’ll need to stay safe — and comfortable — for the storm

PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job

NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter


What Michael taught the Panhandle and Tampa Bay

What the Panhandle’s top emergency officials learned from Michael

‘We’re not going to give up.’ What a school superintendent learned from Michael.

What Tampa Bay school leaders fear most from a storm

Tampa Bay’s top cops fear for those who stay behind

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