Since the day Hurricane Florence began battering the North Carolina coast, WUNC’s education reporters have been following staff and families in New Hanover County Schools, as they first weathered the storm, and now work to put their classrooms and schools back together.
When storms roll into Wilmington, Trask Middle School usually serves as an emergency shelter. But the school’s principal Maggie Rollison knew Florence was different when shelter guests started arriving 10 hours before the shelter opened.
“When I came in for this I thought, ‘I'll just have time to work.’ I'll get a ton done because we don't have to do anything – usually,” recalled Rollison. But she was in for a surprise, "We were the first school to open in the district and we were at capacity or near capacity almost immediately."
Three weeks after Hurricane Florence made landfall in southeastern North Carolina, schools in New Hanover County are re-opening to students. School officials -- and their buildings -- weathered the storm, and for the following weeks, staff have worked hard to meet students’ needs even before they could return to class.
Battling A Hurricane From Inside A School
For several hours before the storm, Rollison helped check in families, and their pets. Meanwhile, her own 8-year-old daughter Caroline was also staying with her at the school.
“She felt like this was some kind of slumber party like she had an air mattress in my office. She wanted to eat lunch in the cafeteria with everybody, like she she thought it was great,” Rollison said.
When the wind and heavy rain finally came, it made for a long day at the middle school. The day started around 5 a.m. with an unexpected arrival of an elderly couple, that had watched their house burn down because no one could help them. They came in their wet pajamas.
School staff rummaged through ‘lost and found’ to give the couple dry clothes and assign them cots in the hallway. Hours later that hallway would fill with water. The roof’s drain pipe in the ceiling of the school’s shop room busted from the immense flow of water and fell to the floor.
Rollison was called to the scene.
“Basically our entire roof was draining into this one classroom. And so a huge trash can, like a regular school-sized trash can, would fill up in like 10 minutes,” Rollison explains.
Water flooded the huge room, then creeped down the halls. Shelter staff moved residents into classrooms and the gym. Late at night, a nearby neighborhood flooded. More families came in, including a few of Rollison’s former students.
“That was my breaking point,” said Rollison. “It's just different when you know the kids and you know their faces and you know their family.”
All in all, Rollison had a 20-hour day and was running out of steam. The next day, her superintendent came to relieve her and she and Caroline went home to rest. Rollison went to bed early and in the morning woke up sleepwalking.
“Telling my family members ‘It's flooding! It's flooding! Get in the halls,” Rollison said, “I'm sure if that's what I'm experiencing I know that the families that dealt with that in a much more traumatic way are feeling the same things.”
Returning to Normal
Now, Rollison’s focus is on helping her students who faced the worst of the storm. Just days after the storm, she began calling students to check on them.
“We’ve already talked to some families,” Rollison said a week before school re-opened. “The kids are struggling. They’ve lost all their belongings. That’s an adult problem, that they’re facing, and it’s hard.”
Days after the storm hit, shelter guests moved to another school. That meant Rollison and her staff could tend to the building, and their community.
“Schools are naturally connected to communities. Any time you watch a natural disaster, schools are the hub,” Rollison said. “They know families better than a lot of community organizations, because we see kids every day.”
But before they could get students back to school, the middle school started reaching out, to offer some help. Guidance counselors called students. The assistant principals home-delivered boxed lunches to families.
There’s still plenty of damage to assess and deal with, and many schools in the district are worse off than Trask. After a rapid clean-up, the school quickly went from being considered one of the most damaged school in the county, to one of the least. Because the school kept generator power and air conditioning on throughout the storm, it didn’t suffer the same mold and mildew issues other schools faced.
Still, the school’s media center is out of commission until water-damaged walls and bookshelves can be replaced, and two trailers that house classrooms have to be gutted. Those teachers will teach from mobile carts, while their belongings are stored in the weight room.
“I wish I could get a call from a parent about how they’re not happy with their child’s grade,” Rollison joked, while clearing out the damaged classrooms. “You know, something normal.”
Rollison has a framed spreadsheet on her office wall, a teasing gift from school staff who know her love of logistics. Now that love, and skill, will be tested in the weeks ahead.