Saturday, April 10, 2021

Did We Learn from Irma?




Granted, while we were experiencing Houston’s Harvey, the irascible Irma was bearing down on Florida somewhere, fickle and feckless, and we might have been a bit distracted with the amount of rain and flooding in Texas. As Irma changed her direction and scared the Bejesus out of everyone in her path, government officials had to scramble to follow her erratic path and transmit the information to the public. One minute it was Miami/Ft. Lauderdale and the next it was the Keys, Marco Island and Naples.

There are so many contingencies and variables to consider. So, after listening to all the latest bulletins and forecasts, what do you do? Were you as perplexed as we were? Is it any wonder that Collier County Public Schools (CCPS) had to increase their hurricane shelters from under 10 to 27? More people poured in looking for shelter as the behemoth approached and news of the decimated Keys shocked them into reality. The more the velocity increased and the storm surge predictions rose, more people, about 17,000, who were going to ride it out at home, decided to head for a shelter, thus forcing CCPS to open schools in lower lying areas that were not designated as shelters.



CCPS, with the best intentions to protect their students and families, was unprepared for the numbers of people and families that swamped the shelters. Administrators and their leadership teams, who were called in to supervise the sites, sometimes with an hour’s notice, had to leave their own families and homes and worry throughout the 140 miles per hour winds whether their own properties and loved ones were safe. That’s going beyond the call of duty, no matter what your level of commitment to education, the students and their family’s wellbeing. And they weren’t the only ones.

Medical personnel, police, firefighters, newscasters, meteorologists, disaster relief organizations, strategic planners in the Collier County Emergency Service Center, National Guard, Park Service employees and many more worked through Irma’s wrath with concern for their loved ones. These dedicated professionals deserve appreciation from all of us for their selflessness during an emergency, and for many of them, more financial compensation, which might assuage their preoccupation with their family’s safety. Or maybe nothing can compensate them for that stress.

It’s a good thing that this caliber of hurricane hasn’t hit Florida in over ten years. If there had been one every year like Irma, I predict that it would be difficult to find employees to spend 3-4 days in the shelter with no power or air conditioning, inadequate space and provisions with the temperament to discipline adults that were fighting, trying to steal classroom computers and other materials, and those who brought their dogs and/or drugs into the milieu, while being preoccupied with the safety of their loved ones. But in the future, there may be no choice.

We, as educators, are not prepared for these situations; we are born and/or taught to teach and find fulfillment in that calling, whether as administrators or teachers. We don’t have expertise in accosting adult drug users sequestered in the schools regarding their behavior. As Palmetto Ridge High School Principal Jon Bremseth stated, “I always thought that being a high school principal is a really difficult job – and it is – but being a shelter operator is a whole different level of difficulty.” Especially with no training and in shelters that were designated for medical and nursing needs and citizens with disabilities.

Were all residents of the shelters a challenge? Absolutely not. Many teachers and families pitched in to mop up water from leaking ceilings or to assist their fellow citizens. Food was not the best, but they were glad to have it. Bathrooms were overcrowded, filthy and some backed up due to excessive usage and inoperable lift stations. Buckets of water were brought in to pour in the toilets so they could flush. Some schools flooded and some lost power. Were they all designated as shelters and prepared before Irma? No. But they did the best they could under the circumstances as more and more shelters were needed and added, and as a result, lives were saved.

One of the amazing post-Irma scenarios was the number of teachers, staff and volunteers that came out to provide their students and families with food, by personally making sack lunches and delivering them in the communities that surrounded their schools, including Oakridge, Shadowlawn, Manatee and Parkside Elementary Schools and Everglades, where teachers personally made and delivered food to families to be sure students and adults were obtaining the nutrition they needed. This initiative, started by the administrators at North Naples Middle School, by Principal Margaret Jackson and Assistant Principal Ed Laudise, was highly effective, especially in partnership with Everglades City Schools where many families were devastated by the hurricane and needed lunches to ease their struggles. Thanks to many donations, collectively, they made over 2,000 lunches for families that had no access to food. This outreach, walking door to door or setting up a table in the center of the community by the employees in “their schools” was positively uplifting to the families near those schools.

Here’s the point, in case you missed it. There are many public servants that go above and beyond the call of duty (aka their “job description”) because of their commitment to their professions and to the citizens that they serve. Do they deserve our respect and admiration? You bet they do, and a whole lot more. Let’s not forget them in the months of clean up ahead, they’ll need TLC, too.

Jory Westberry has been a dedicated educator for over 40 years, the last 14 as Principal of Tommie Barfield Elementary, where she left her heart. Life is rich with things to learn, ponder and enjoy so let’s get on with the journey together!

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