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Devastated After Hurricane Matthew, Robeson County Schools Begin To Pick Up The Pieces

Robeson Schools Superintendent Tommy Lowry surveys the damage outside the textbook and supply warehouse at the district's central services.
Jess Clark
Robeson Schools Superintendent Tommy Lowry surveys the damage outside the textbook and supply warehouse at the district's central services.

Outside Robeson County Schools central offices, Superintendent Tommy Lowry points to a large hole in the top of the chain-link fence. "Where that fence is cut there, that’s where I came across in a boat. That’s how high the water was," he said.

Flood waters following Hurricane Matthew have now receded, revealing the extent of the damage—which is nearly total here at central services.

The waters also severely damaged four schools. And four high schools that weren't damaged are still being used as shelters for hundreds of residents who lost their homes.

"It's just very devastating," Lowry said.

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In blue jeans and work boots, with a cell phone attached to his ear, Lowry picks his way over the slick muddy floors and piles of waterlogged office supplies and warped furniture. He wears a mask to protect himself from the toxic air, which is so foul it turns your stomach.

Despite the damage, Lowry says when he surveys the rubble he feels thankful.

"Just thankful, because it could have been worse, I think. I don’t know how sometimes. But I think it could have been worse," Lowry said.

Lowry says he’s grateful none of his employees or students lost their lives in the flood. So far, the state counts 25 people who died as a result of Hurricane Matthew. But the damage to his school system is well into the millions of dollars. The district’s central offices, print shop, textbook and supply warehouse, and maintenance equipment are destroyed. So are nearly all of the student and personnel records going back decades.

"The only records we’ll be able to save are the ones that were in the top shelf," Lowry said. "All the other three file cabinets, those records are gone."

Flooding from Hurricane Matthew put the district's central services under five feet of water.
Credit Jess Clark / WUNC
Flooding from Hurricane Matthew put the district's central services under five feet of water.

Lowry has been working 14-hour days and taking nearly constant phone calls since the storm hit, trying to figure out how the district can get students back into the classroom, especially those who are now homeless.

"A lot of our students have gone through just a horrendous situation," he said. "And I think at our schools that we can provide the counseling, we can provide the nurturing that they need to kind of put their lives back together through this situation they’ve gone through."

Some schools continue to serve as a shelters

Several miles away, families are still using South Robeson High school as a shelter. Charlotte McCollum and her five-year-old granddaughter Jariaah are outside getting some air. McCollum says she’s doing her best to keep Jariaah’s mind active while the schools are closed.

"I find books like for shapes, colors, where she can practice writing her name, her numbers, stuff that she do in kindergarten. I found it in here," said McCollum, adding that Jariaah's teachers also brought her school work, and even some clothes.

McCollum’s family is sticking it out for temporary housing in Lumberton. But FEMA has relocated some families to hotel rooms in Fayetteville, almost an hour away. Other students have already left the area to stay with family members in other parts of the state. If those students don’t return, it could have a financial impact on Robeson next year.

Pamlico Schools Superintendent Lisa Jackson understand the challenges Robeson is going through. She said her district near New Bern lost about 10 percent of its students after Hurricane Irene in 2011.

"That’s a huge impact  on a small district where every student is funding dollars for us too to be able to get the things that we needed," Jackson said.

Robeson County Schools are already cash-strapped. The district's local per-pupil spending is the second-lowest in the state. And even before Hurricane Matthew hit, Robeson students had a lot of needs. Eighty-five percent of Robeson students are low-income.

Teachers, staff and students set up a distribution center at Lumberton High School. Students sorted and folded clothing.
Credit Jess Clark / WUNC
Teachers, staff and students set up a distribution center for bottled water, clothing, food and other supplies at Lumberton High School.

But enrollment losses aren’t top of mind for Robeson officials, at least not yet. Right now, the focus is getting the classroom doors open. Jackson says based on her experience, that’s as it should be.

"Get those kids back in school as soon as possible, make things normal for those kids at least during the seven hours that they’re in school. And they will be ok, they will get through it," Jackson said. "Years and years later, there will still be things that you’re dealing with. But you will get through it,."

Friday marks two weeks since Robeson students have been out of school. Lowry said aside from the damage to the school system, transportation is a major issue. Damage to more than a hundred roads means it may not be safe for many students to travel to school, and with hundreds of students displaced, the district will need new bus routes.

District officials are hoping to gets students back in school before November.

Jess is WUNC's Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting. Her reporting focuses on how decisions made at the North Carolina General Assembly affect the state's students, families, teachers and communities.
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