How did the hurricane affect you as a principal?
When I arrived at the school the day after the storm the school had no electricity. Although the structure itself was intact, just a couple of blocks in either direction the devastation was evident and pretty tragic. It affected me as a principal in terms of trying to locate my students, locate my staff, and making sure everybody was okay.
How were your students affected by the storm?
To varying degrees, some of my students were affected in as minimal a way as losing electric, and not having school to attend for approximately nine days. On the other end of the continuum, I had students who were completely displaced from their homes. They lost all of their personal belongings. They had to take what they little they had and move in either with a relative or family friend or in some cases they were put into hotels and motels temporarily until they could be placed in a more semi permanent way.
How did you locate your students after the storm?
The first thing that we did was attempted to establish some kind of communication in any way possible. So we started to make phone calls out to staff members and then we tried to locate our staff members as well as students, but again, we had no electric and no cell phone service. We did have the sign out front of the school. It was just a good old-fashioned sign that you put the letters on, but we were able to put communication out on the sign, telling parents that school was closed. Then quickly we started gathering up the list of our students and going doortodoor through the community trying to ensure we knew where people were.
What was the response like from the students going doortodoor service?
I think that they were surprised to see staff members at their door. We showed up with blankets and some supplies and we transported students back to school for a hot meal. Our food service company provided hot soup, bread, and fruit. We put out baskets of books that students could read. Although we only had natural light down in the cafeteria, we were able to bring students back together for some semblance of socialization and a little bit of academics as well.
How did your school prepare for the storm?
The first thing we did was we met with the mayor, the council, the Office of Emergency Management, and Public Works. We discussed the idea of what would we do in the event that the storm turned out to be the triple threat that in its worst case scenario could be.
When you first got back to Belmar after the storm what was your immediate reaction?
I had no idea what was happening anywhere else nor did anybody else. We lost cell service at some point in the middle of the night, so I wasn’t able to check in with my superintendent or any other administrator. Our plan was that we would wake up the next day and assess the damage to our home, try to get out, and then attempt and get to the school that Monday morning.
I got over here the next day at approximately 10:00 a.m. Aside from a few small trees that were down the building was intact. Although cell service was limited as best, every couple hours I would get a text, some telling me that the flooding was extreme a few blocks in either direction from the school. And as I started to walk a few blocks to the east, I could see already within three blocks, cars were already covered up to their windows in water. I did have a teacher upstairs in their home because the downstairs was flooded. So little by little the picture of what had happened through the night became clearer.
What made you want to help every family in your school?
We’re in the business of children. It’s just naturally our responsibility to find our families and make sure they are okay. We knew that this was a very serious storm. Many of our families are economically disadvantaged; they may not have had cars to evacuate.
We organized a daily command center here at the school. Anybody who could, staff members, people from around the state, teachers from other districts, we all met here and walked over to borough hall every morning. They would give us the assignment list everyday. They are collectively all of our children, our families. We would go to the homes they assigned us and help muck out basements, bring supplies where we could, and again continue to transport children back here to school everyday.
How has the recovery process been overall?
It was impressive. We immediately convened what we called our SRC, our Storm Relief Committee, which is headed by our guidance counselor and key staff members. Part of their job was to work with school administration to find out where our displaced families were. We had 27 students that weren’t able to return to their home, which may not sound like a lot until you consider that we only had 555 students, so you’re talking about five percent of our students and their families are not in their homes. We also took in other children who were displaced from other districts.
Ironically, a handful of years back during the wake of Katrina, our school adopted a school out there and wrote letters of support as pen pals. There were donations that went out there, and that school now was in the position to pay it forward to our school. They immediately reached out to us and one of the things that they did was to give our students a copy of a published book called, “After The Storm”, which told the stories of their children who were displaced after the storm and the challenges they went through. We received 575 copies of that book.
We had backpacks filled with supplies, we had gift cards to all of the major retailers that could help with home improvement, stores that families could get some basic supplies. Our storm relief committee would identify our neediest families so that we could offer some support.
Did the outpouring relief surprise you?
I guess I was surprised because we were not the only community affected. You heard stories all along the coast of schools that had been really impacted; yet it felt like the whole world came to our help. People from all around the country were helping schools along the shore. In the face of tremendous devastation, it brings out the humanitarian in all of us. I believe that people are truly good and compassionate at heart, and I think that people realized that it could have been any one of them.
Were all of the 27 displaced students able to come back to Belmar Elementary School?
All the students were able to come back to school. The McKinney-Vento act allows for any students classified as homeless, regardless of their economic standing, free breakfast and free lunch. It also allows for any student who is displaced for one year to attend their original district. To know that your children have food while you get your affairs in order can be a tremendous relief to parents.
What was it like to reopen the school?
One of the little girls who was coming in for the lunch we were providing, walked with me hand in hand to the lunchroom and said, “Thank God I’m back in school. I feel so safe!” School represents a very stable and secure environment for students. The teacher is the same throughout the year, the faces are the same, their desks are where they leave them, and there’s a sense of routine security. When you go through a natural disaster like a hurricane, and everything else is topsy-turvy, fortunately school was the one thing that was still intact.
It was almost like there was a sense of relief, seeing all of their classmates, reconnecting, and sharing stories. We had to spend a lot of time those first few days to just let kids talk and share their experiences. We also had assembled a crisis team with our school psychologist, our guidance counselor, and our school social worker, and we had to provide training to our staff in recognizing the sign of trauma in students.
How did your teachers respond to the students when they came back?
Teachers were as relieved to be back to business as much as the students were glad to be back in school. Our teachers are very nurturing here. They had been very much a part of the recovery efforts and being out in the community. Although they had very close relationships with their students prior to the storm, this brought a whole new facet of compassion to their relationships.
What was the hardest part of being a principal during the devastation?
I think the hardest part was knowing that any one of your students or families are going through an extraordinarily devastating situation. One of our families did not evacuate during the storm. One of their children, a third grader at the time gave me a detailed account of what it was like that night. It was bone-chilling story to listen to, as they stood on top of their beds, trying to stay above the rising water line. A boat came and rescued them. Every single thing that they owned was out on their front lawn. That was really difficult.
How did the school keep the morale of the students high?
I think the way to keep the morale of the students high is to get back to the business of school. Children are very resilient. We had check in continuously with our families that we knew were still going through challenging times. Those students in particular were given additional support services.
Some of those support services were provided internally, check-ins and regular meetings with our guidance counselor and crisis team, who convened support groups for victims of the storm.
Is there anything that you wish you had done differently?
One thing that changed as a result of that storm is we now have families complete a new form in June, called an ERP; it’s an Emergency Readiness Plan. In the event of a natural disaster, it provides vital information, such as where families would go, additional contact and relocation information, etc.
Do you think there are any lessons you think Belmar has learned from the storm?
Mother nature has a mind of its own. The topography of our land has changed with that storm. So I think it’s really knowing who your students are, who may be your neediest students, and what is your plan in the event of a natural disaster, including crisis personnel and outreach programs ready to go. I don’t want this to sound callous, but the positive that comes out of going through something like that is you know exactly what to do the next time. And, you know that because you’ve gone through it before, if we find ourselves in that situation again our call to action will be very swift because we can handle it, we know we are tough, we know we will recover and not just survive…but thrive!
Interviewed by Megan Moast
Edited by Megan Moast
Belmar, New Jersey
Recorded April 28, 2015