Coping After Disaster

From a veteran of Hurricane Andrew, reflections on what Houston schools will contend with — and how to support them

August 31, 2017
Hurricane Katrina

On August 24, 1992, Hurricane Andrew blew the roof off of my house while I was in it. Like Hurricane Harvey, it became a monster just hours before landfall. We didn’t know what was coming and the extent to which it would upend our lives.

As an 11-year-old Floridian, I was taught that hurricanes were occasions for parties. The night Andrew came to town we donned our ‘Canes jerseys, played board games by candlelight, and used our flashlights to tell spooky stories as the wind started its howling. We created a makeshift mattress tent, anchoring the bed to the legs of my parents’ dresser with ropes, piling up our pillows and blankets beneath it. I fell asleep secretly hoping that I would not have to attend the first day of school on Monday.

 

Education leaders in Houston and across the coasts of Texas and Louisiana are about to face the challenge of a lifetime, working to mitigate the social-emotional and academic consequences of a major natural disaster.

Of course, my wish was granted. School was canceled for several weeks as school buildings that survived the storm became refuge for families, like mine, who lost their homes. Nearly 30,000 students in the southern part of Miami-Dade County were displaced.

Education leaders in Houston and across the coasts of Texas and Louisiana are about to face the challenge of a lifetime. They will need to muster their resources to provide shelter, counseling services, and adequate instructional time to students, despite the fact that school openings are delayed, buildings are shuttered, teachers relocated, and students' lives disrupted, seemingly indefinitely.

The education research is clear: Experiencing a hurricane or other natural disaster will affect children's social and emotional health and their academic performance. For example, we know that attendance plays a significant role in student success. After Hurricane Katrina, the median student evacuee was out of school for five weeks. Not only do families in these situations experience physical barriers to getting to school — like road closures and broken transit — but students also shoulder new burdens, like taking care of siblings or working additional jobs, that can prevent them from getting to school on time or at all.

Exposure to a natural disaster also affects children’s overall success in school. Researchers found that test scores for displaced students dramatically sank in the year following Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. Katrina evacuees from the suburbs experienced a 3.5 percentage point drop in four-year college-going outcomes.

Schools can mobilize to identify the students in need of support and provide them with the resources needed to stay on track. And communities can mobilize to protect students and foster resilience in the aftermath of the storm.

But there is hope. Schools can mobilize to identify the students in need of support and provide them with the resources needed to stay on track. Researchers can help. St. Bernard Parish, just outside of New Orleans, participated in the Strategic Data Project (SDP) at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University to help its students, many of whom had been displaced by Katrina. The hurricane destroyed the entire parish, including all 14 schools. The challenges students faced at home skyrocketed. Before the storm, 49 percent of students were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch; that number shot to 79 percent the year after.

In the years that followed, SDP Fellows Mary Lumetta and Alison Gros collected data to determine which students were in need of interventions, and they worked to increase their likelihood of on-time graduation. Guidance counselors were trained to use data to track participation in interventions, like grade recovery programs, so students who missed school could catch up to their expected grade level.

Houston schools have already responded by announcing that all students will receive three free meals a day this year. That's one example of how communities can mobilize after disaster to protect students and build resilience. After Andrew, I moved to the northwest part of the city, away from our flattened, flooded streets. There I found safe harbor at a school miles from my neighborhood, where a teacher unlocked my love for writing during “intersession,” an additional school period designed to support students whose parents were working extra hours to rebuild after the storm. Ms. Bledsoe taught me to use writing as a tool to unpack what had happened to my home and my community — now 25 years ago.

In Houston, school was supposed to start this week. Now, with the city in chaos and floodwaters still surging, schools are closed, and the lives of so many families have been disrupted. The Houston Independent School District will be charged with the incredible task of keeping students anchored, when everything else, at least for a little while, seems adrift.

Supporting Houston's Kids After Harvey

About the Author

Miriam Greenberg
Miriam Greenberg is a director at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University. She writes about the ways in which education data reaches beyond the numbers and into our lives. Follow her on Twitter at @mirigreenberg and @HarvardCEPR.
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