March 14-16 marks the 6-month anniversary of Hurricane Florence in North Carolina, and State Superintendent Mark Johnson is using the half-year mark to remind all North Carolinians of the damage wrought by the storm and of the ongoing recovery efforts.
“We’re not that far removed from this major storm, yet many in North Carolina may have moved on and forgotten its long-term effects,” Johnson said. “Today, even as we continue to help schools recover from Florence, we celebrate the local heroes on the ground – teachers, administrators, school nutrition staff, and many others – who put the safety, education, and long-term well-being of their students ahead of their own comfort and safety.”
Once the September 14-16 storm left North Carolina, school districts around the state swung into action. Teachers worked to locate students. Principals and local superintendents went from hosting emergency shelters in schools to trying to find usable space to reopen for returning students. Perhaps the most overlooked on-the-ground heroes were the school nutrition workers, who – while they were not even sure they would be paid for the work – made meals available to all students who needed them. In some cases, food was even airlifted into flooded areas.
Turning quickly to recovery efforts, state leaders worked together to make $95 million available to local school districts so that schools could reopen in the wake of the storm (see table below). On Oct. 15, the General Assembly appropriated $35 million to add to the $25 million the governor made available Oct. 8. On Dec. 3, the General Assembly provided an additional $35 million. The legislature has also ensured that all school personnel paid through state funds will receive pay if they missed a day due to the storm and would have been scheduled to work that day.
Hundreds of schools were damaged and two have been permanently closed because of the storm. Beyond the physical damage to buildings is the toll on students’ well-being. The 35 school districts in the 34 federally declared disaster counties represent more than 535,000 students, or about a third of all N.C. public school students. More than 5,000 students were rendered homeless by the storm and DPI School Nutrition staff estimate that 50,000 students in disaster counties have benefited from a waiver DPI sought and obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that allowed schools to provide meals at no cost to all students during the disaster recovery phase.
“We estimate that the number of students who missed at least a week of school is 340,000 – that’s larger than the entire populations of Winston-Salem and Asheville combined,” Johnson said. “I have seen schools where portions of the building were entirely flooded. I have seen mold and mildew damage that made schools unsuitable. But, I have also seen the resilience and determination to get back to normal. Our public schools are so important to their communities, and we owe it to them to support ongoing recovery efforts.”
One important effort is led by Mike Ward, former state superintendent. Joined by a bipartisan group of state education leaders, including Johnson, Ward established Florence Aid to Students and Teachers – FAST NC. The FAST NC effort has made more than $1 million available to aid schools in recovery efforts, and the group continues to accept donations and review applications for assistance from educators in the affected areas. The FAST NC funds are meant to supplement what insurance and state and federal disaster relief will not cover. Many insurance contracts have a monetary cap on smaller items such as rugs, books that aren’t textbooks, and other classroom items that make a classroom into a second home for students.
FAST NC grants have been awarded across the affected counties and range from $82,000 to refit Jones County schools to $760 to Whiteville Central Middle School to replace damaged student exercise equipment. Under the FAST NC model, teachers can submit individual requests to the FAST NC committee if the request is approved first by the local superintendent.
Johnson has visited multiple schools affected by the storm in the past six months, and on Friday will visit Town Creek Elementary School in Winnabow, part of the Brunswick County school system, to mark the anniversary. Johnson, the father of a kindergartner, even convinced Santa Claus to visit a Wilmington elementary school with him in December to deliver books and spread Christmas cheer and help reinvigorate the community.