Lone Star Strong

Critical Care

Texas schools rebuild after Hurricane Harvey blast

Story and photos by Glenn Cook

On a Sunday morning in late August, Vicki Mims took her usual route to the office—in a boat. 

“We were coming down 517,” she says, referring to the road that serves as the main thoroughfare through Dickinson, Texas, where Mims has worked for 38 years, first as a teacher, then as an administrator, and now as the superintendent. “We had just been evacuated from our home, and the person driving the boat joked, ‘Someday we’ll all laugh about this.’”

But “this” was Hurricane Harvey, and the havoc it wreaked has been no laughing matter. Not for the schoolchildren and families left displaced by the storm, which affected districts along the Texas Gulf Coast from Rockport to the Louisiana state line some 300 miles away. And especially not in the hardest-hit areas in and around Houston, where more than 32,000 residents are expected to live in shelters or motels for months. 

“It’s a long process, and everything we’re doing now is just bleeding money,” says Dee Ann Powell, superintendent of the Pasadena Independent School District, which serves 56,000 students in south Houston and sustained more than $25 million in damages. “But we’re going to feed our kids, teach them, and love them. In that respect, it’s pretty simple.”

Not simple is the agonizing process of rebuilding. The past three months have meant navigating debris-filled neighborhoods filled with sheetrock, carpets, furniture, and family memories. School leaders in these communities, forced by the storm to delay the start of classes or reboot just after students returned for the 2017-18 year, face huge academic, financial, and social/emotional costs of a months-long recovery effort.

“This is not over when the cameras go away,” says Mims, who was living at her daughter’s home in nearby League City while her house was being repaired. “We’ll still have kids who are dealing with parents who are out of work. They’ll move back into their houses that still smell. They won’t have clothes, or they’ll have clothes that smell like their homes. There will be health concerns. This is a life-changing event for so many people.”

Storm toll

Following Harvey’s path in mid-September, three weeks after the hurricane made landfall in Rockport, it’s noteworthy to see how random and indiscriminate a natural disaster is. In all, about 220 districts in the state were impacted, according to the Texas Education Agency. Damage estimates range as high as $190 billion.

In the Rockport-Port Aransas area just north of Corpus Christi, Harvey’s 100-plus mph winds caused so much damage that five small school districts were closed for weeks. The Gregory-Portland Independent School District, which was spared most of the storm’s wrath, saw its enrollment swell by 40 percent—from 4,500 to 6,300 students—as desperate parents tried to get their children back to school.

Weakening as it left Aransas County, Harvey slid back into the Gulf of Mexico and moved east, striking the greater Houston area as a tropical storm. It then stalled, dumping 50 inches of rain and overwhelming the region’s maze of bayous, lakes, and rivers before leaving on Aug. 29. Still not done, Harvey became a hurricane again before flooding the Beaumont-Port Arthur area almost 100 miles to Houston’s east. 

Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, received the most attention due to flooding that submerged its downtown and the neighborhoods closest to swollen waterways. More than 80 percent of the 283 schools in Houston ISD sustained damage; at least three schools are not expected to reopen this year.

“Every quadrant of the district was touched in some way,” says Houston Superintendent Richard Carranza. “Some lost some things. Some lost everything. But there is no area in our district—our region, for that matter—that wasn’t affected.”

With 216,000 students, Houston ISD is the nation’s seventh largest school district. But that does not reflect the true number of students—almost 600,000—who live within the city limits or the greater Houston area, thanks to the state’s approach to education geography.

Texas has more than 1,000 school districts, all of which are independent and not tied to municipal or county boundaries. Dickinson ISD, for example, includes the city, two neighboring communities, and parts of two others in Galveston County. Eighteen districts that serve students in the city of Houston also serve their own communities and unincorporated parts of Harris and Fort Bend Counties. 

Only one school in Dickinson, 30 miles to the south of Houston, sustained minor flooding, but most of the city was decimated. More than 7,300 homes and 88 businesses were damaged by Harvey’s floodwaters. About 50 percent of the homes had major damage or will have to be torn down, and many residents do not have flood insurance.

Mims estimates that 1,100 students—10 percent of the district’s total enrollment—were “severely impacted,” meaning their homes were seriously damaged or a total loss. Almost 600 of the district’s 1,300 employees also sustained major property losses.

The loss of material items, while not insignificant, pales next to long-term concerns about Harvey’s effects on the environment, including possible lead and arsenic contamination in some neighborhoods. By removing wetlands to accommodate growth, especially in the northern suburbs, the region is increasingly vulnerable to flooding. The area’s heat and humidity make it a breeding ground for mold and E. coli bacteria, especially when more than 50 inches of rain has nowhere to go for days. 

In Pasadena ISD, Thompson Intermediate School on Houston’s South Belt had 5 feet of water, while Stuchbery Elementary on the same road had 6 inches. Kingwood High School, part of a planned community in Humble ISD near George Bush Intercontinental Airport, saw its administrative offices, auditorium, gym, and fine arts department flooded by waters that reached 8 feet. Cypress-Fairbanks, the third largest district in the state, lost a school to flooding, as did Katy ISD, another fast-growing district that straddles municipal and county lines. Several schools in the Beaumont-Port Arthur area also were closed due to roof damage and floodwaters.

“It was far, far worse than I could have imagined,” Kingwood Principal Ted Landry says. “We had to wait nine days for the water to go down before we could even re-enter the school.” 

Mims also is concerned about the physical and emotional toll as well as the financial burden on her community. She tells a story about two staff members —a central office secretary with four children and a maintenance employee with a 23-month-old son — whose homes and cars were flooded. Both likely will have to take low-interest loans from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to rebuild.

“These are not just names and numbers to me,” she says. “This is what keeps me up at night. I worry about families wiping down their studs, putting up sheetrock and not waiting for FEMA, because they have to go back to work. For people who had insurance, like us, it’s an inconvenience, but it’s not a life changing event in that way. If you’re at minimum wage or making $20 an hour, or have lost your job because you’ve lost your transportation, I don’t know how you recover from it.”

Whatever it takes

Dotted among the stories of boat rescues and loss are countless tales of resilience, resolve, and gratitude. The phrase “Houston Strong”—seen throughout the sprawling area—was quickly adopted by other communities and schools and used on billboards, T-shirts, and commercials. From across the U.S., donations of clothing, food, and day-to-day staples inundated schools and nonprofit organizations.

“Watching our faculty take care of each other has been a wonderful thing,” Landry says. “There is grieving going on, but they’re helping each other get through it. Our theater students, baseball team, dance team, football team—they’re all going out into the community and helping each other do whatever it takes. It’s been great to see.”

Karen Strong, associate executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards, has kept a list of news stories written about schools helping schools. Within the first month, the number totaled more than 60.

“The way that districts are helping each other is remarkable,” she says. “It’s so encouraging. There are so many stories of people going out of their way to have each other’s backs.”

During Harvey’s height, many districts opened schools as shelters—some makeshift, some not. In Katy ISD, FEMA took over two high school stadiums to house buses and volunteers helping with rescue efforts. The Texas National Guard and the Department of Public Safety also used district sites because of Katy’s proximity to Interstate 10 and State Highway 99, Houston’s third outer loop. Three schools served as shelters.

“We’ve never been in the shelter business, but it was something we chose to do as a school district,” says Superintendent Lance Hindt. “We were overwhelmed by the generosity we saw. We’d put out a tweet that we need pillows, blankets, or mattresses and we’d have so many we couldn’t use them all. It was a united community helping each other.”

Hindt, who sent his staff to do a voluntary “day of service” on the Friday before schools resumed, says he learned a lesson from the generosity.

“If you ask for something, don’t turn people away,” he says. “People who weren’t impacted needed to feel good too, so we worked with groups in the area to pick up the items we didn’t need and started distributing items to Port Lavaca and Port Aransas. You have to pay it forward.”

On a Saturday morning in mid-September, students from McAllen ISD on the Texas-Mexico border did just that. They took a bus to Rockport, a three-plus hour trip one way, to drop off canned goods and supplies. As the students milled around the primary crisis area near the still-closed beachfront, a sponsor said of the effort, “We’re just doing our part. Our kids wanted to do something.”

Meanwhile, in the tiny town of Tivoli 32 miles northeast of Rockport, volunteers from Victoria spent the day cooking 500 meals “for anyone who wants something to eat.” A makeshift general store, located in a closed tire shop, was filled with donated items for the low-income community of 479.

Tivoli and its neighbor, Austwell, have a combined school district that serves about 150 students in grades K-12. The junior high/high school lost part of its roof and the cafeteria was damaged when Tivoli took a direct hit, but the district managed to reopen in two weeks.

“We have some portable buildings, so we’re not back in the school itself,” says Angie Riddock, a financial planner who was running the donation center. “We’ve had community members cooking for them because we lost the roof in the cafeteria, and people donated pizza and chicken. Our fire department has barbecued hamburgers. It’s been a setback, but the community bonded together and got our kids back in school.”

Back to school

As Hurricane Irma churned through Florida, most of Texas’ affected districts resumed classes on Sept. 11. Some had been in school for four days, while others were preparing to welcome students back when Harvey hit.

In the two weeks between the storm and the (re)start of school, districts that lost buildings scrambled to make arrangements they hope are temporary, unsure of what the future holds. Most reported that enrollment remained stable, with attendance rates ranging from 80 percent to 95 percent. To help keep children in school, Houston ISD is offering free breakfast, lunch, and dinner to students for the entire year.

“On the first day, 13 kids who came to Barber Middle School didn’t have shoes,” Mims says. “That tears your heart out when you think about fifth- and sixth-graders who feel comfortable enough to come into the school and say, ‘I want to learn and I want to see my friends, but I need a pair of shoes.’ And we took care of it.”

Thompson, the Pasadena school that took on 5 feet of water, was forced to relocate to Beverly Hills Intermediate, its South Houston rival that had extra room because of the closure of the former Challenger School. In addition, the district brought in temporary buildings to accommodate almost 900 seventh- and eighth-graders. Students from Dobie High painted Thompson’s mascot at the building’s entrance to “help us maintain our sense of community,” Principal Melissa Allen says.

“Our attention and focus has been about getting our kids into a safe, stable place. Now it begins to shift,” says Allen, pointing to a white board in her office on the second day of classes. “If you’d looked at the board this morning, you would have seen checklists about the building and the classrooms and this and that. Now, the board is about what counseling groups we need to start, what we can do for our kids once the original resources begin to trail off.”

About 720 students from Katy’s flooded Creech Elementary jammed into a 37,000-square-foot building the district leased from the University of Houston. In two and a half days, staff managed to set up classrooms that, while crowded, still had the look and feel of an elementary school. Four temporary buildings were being added and were expected to be in place by mid-October.

“Given the circumstances most of our kids faced at home, displaced in the community where they live, it was even more important for them to stay together as a school community,” says Principal Euberta Lucas. “Their houses are full of water, and many are living in temporary arrangements with other family members or in hotels, so it’s important to have the continuity they get at school.”

In Humble ISD, school officials had to relocate Kingwood’s 2,700 students to Summer Creek High School, almost an hour away. The schools split the day: Summer Creek in the morning and Kingwood in the afternoon. 

“We’ve tried to be as proactive as we can in a completely reactive situation,” says Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen, noting that the cost to rebuild Kingwood could total $40 million. “We are being very responsive to the things we can improve, but have said from the beginning that this is a work in progress. We’re trying to create certainty where there’s none. We haven’t seen anything like this before.”

'This is what we do’

Traditions die hard in Texas, so returning to class also meant a return to Friday night football. On the day Dickinson faces off against rival Texas City in its home opener, Mims notes that an afternoon scrimmage the week before included the band, drill team, staff, and community members who dropped everything for a few hours to sit in the heat and humidity. 

“They want normalcy. They want the football game,” Mims says. “This is what we do in this community on Friday nights.”

Kingwood, which lost all its uniforms in the flood, practiced for its road opener against Friendswood in borrowed helmets and pads, but the district made sure students were in their proper gear for the game. The following week, members of the Houston Texans donated 250 pairs of cleats and 100 footballs to a program that had lost everything.

“This is part of the recovery process,” says Humble ISD school board member Charles Cunningham. “As board members, we’re going to have to keep ensuring the community that it’s going to get there. We want our kids back in their school, but we’ve got to deal with FEMA, the insurance company, and the state. We’ve got to do it right, at all of the different levels. We’ll get there.”

In Friendswood, Kingwood’s team linked arms during the pre-game ceremony as a moment of silence was observed and a Harvey-related video was shown. The team started flat, falling behind 17-0 early and eventually losing 31-16. 

Fifteen miles away, in Dickinson, a community catharsis was underway. Dickinson took a 14-point lead at halftime in front of a packed crowd, then outscored Texas City 26-0 in the second half to win 47-7. Sitting in her usual seat about 25 rows up with her husband, Mims talked to board members and friends and smiled. For three hours, the daily reality of life after Harvey was set aside.

“After all that’s happened, this is what we needed.”


Glenn Cook (glenncook117@gmail.com) is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Northern Virginia. The former executive editor of ASBJ, he now is a contributing writer to the magazine. 

 

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