As NC children head back to schools, parents hope for a year without hurricanes

When Robbie Belcher’s family returned to St. Pauls after evacuating for two weeks at the height of Hurricane Florence, they came home to chaos.

A window was broken, the roof was damaged and the carpet needed to be torn out. Exposure to rain also meant that mold had started to grow in her young son’s bedroom.

Now, nearly a year after the storm, the house still has not been repaired, and her son sleeps at night with Belcher and her husband.

Belcher, who keeps the door to the moldy bedroom closed, said, “We ... don’t have anywhere else to go, so we have to live there.

Last year, Hurricane Florence made landfall Sept. 14, just weeks after the school year began. Education stopped for more than a month in much of Eastern North Carolina. Some schools were being used to shelter people forced to leave their homes; other school buildings suffered damage from wind and rain. The N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s insurance division has paid more than $15.7 million in claims to public schools so far, with another $25 million in estimated claims pending.

When students did return, the lengthy time away often meant increased homework loads and dealing with the effects of disruptions to their routines. As the 2019-20 school year begins in many districts this week, families are continuing to recover while also hoping hurricane season passes without another storm.

Belcher describes her son as a happy child whose favorite TV characters are Thomas the Tank Engine and Mickey Mouse. Last fall, he started kindergarten at Robeson County Schools’ St. Pauls Elementary. On Sept. 11, the school closed.

It wouldn’t reopen until Oct. 16.

Once the students did return, there was pressure to make up for lost time. Even for her kindergartner, Belcher said a typical night of homework was two worksheets, as well as writing out the numbers from one to 100 and the entire alphabet.

“Sometimes it would take us a few hours in order for him to finish it because I don’t want him to just have it sloppy,” Belcher said.

After they finished helping their son with his homework and put him to bed, Belcher and her husband would work on repairing their home.

Disaster recovery for children

While parents might talk freely about post-hurricane pressure, it’s often hard to tell if children are also suffering from the aftermath of a disaster, said Cari Logan, who works to implement the Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s Early Recovery Needs Assessment Program.

“A lot of children will unintentionally hide that they’re stressed out or that they’re emotional because they recognize the stress in their parents,” Logan said, “and they somehow know that if they express their own need in that, that it is going to cause additional stress in Mom and Dad.”

In Robeson County, a state-designated volunteer organization provides disaster case management after hurricanes. Cassandra Campbell, executive director of the Robeson County Disaster Recovery Committee, said many of the organization’s clients are single mothers and that a case manager can help them assess what resources are available.

“The children tend to fare better when there’s an extended support system than when they’re left alone with their parents to figure out where they’re going to get food or clothing, whether they’re going to have a bed to sleep on or a couch,” Campbell said.

A 2010 study from Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness assessed how 283 children fared over time after Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Of those interviewed, the study found 37% had been diagnosed with anxiety, a behavior disorder or depression. Furthermore, children who had lived through Katrina were five times as likely to show emotional disturbances than a similar group that had been surveyed before the storm.

In a study of Florence survivors, 67% of participants reported a new or worsening mental health condition since Florence, and 26% reported a child in their home developed a new or worsening mental health condition. Researchers from the University of North Carolina-Pembroke and East Carolina University surveyed residents from Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties for the study.

“It’s hard for a parent to try to explain to (their children) what has happened,” Campbell said, “and it’s hard for children to understand how their lives have been ripped apart by a disaster. ... You don’t know what their little minds can take and what they’re feeling about that day.”

Living through a disaster can also impact the educational process. It is common, Logan said, for children to have difficulty sleeping, hindering their ability to learn.

In one case, Logan recalled, children she was working with weren’t able to sleep until their families had packed a bag in case they needed to leave quickly during another disaster.

“They (knew) that when they wake up, they have that bag,” Logan said, “and they have what they want in it.”

Logan also suggested parents allow children to discuss the disaster. By doing so, she said, their attitude can change from a feeling of powerlessness to understanding.

“We should allow that to happen,” Logan said, “and enter that conversation at their level with them and allow it to be part of what we’re talking about, what we’re doing together to take the fear out of it.”

The twin impacts of Hurricanes Matthew and Florence are part of the reason school leaders give for consolidating schools, along with a struggling local economy, according to the Fayetteville Observer. Since Matthew, the district has seen a decline of 1,699 students, leading to a $12.7 million decrease in funding from the state.

Karen Brooks-Floyd, a Robeson County schools assistant superintendent, said the district has effectively enacted a hiring freeze, with exceptions made for subjects where it is more difficult to find teachers, such as math and special education.

Florence caused about $5 million in damage to district schools, Brooks-Floyd said, and forced about 90 students from W.H. Knuckles Elementary School to a nearby middle school. The facility was expected be ready for Monday’s first day of school.

Slow progress for some Robeson families

As a child, Ernestine Pierce attended Green Grove Elementary School in Fairmont, one of five the district is closing. Two people usually live in her Rowland home, but after Florence’s floodwaters rose, her daughter’s family of five moved in.

“It was supposed to be a couple of days, but things got worse and worse. So it ended up being a month or so,” Pierce said during a recent interview.

The children were able to visit their own home but could not stay there because of mold and sodden floors. Eventually, the home was made livable again, but more extensive repairs were necessary.

When a team did come in to do the additional work, Pierce recalled, they replaced the floors in a shoddy fashion. Some flooring came loose from the walls or was uneven. What was supposed to be a three-day project became a three-week project, and the family had to return to Pierce’s house.

Nekema Hunt, 12, one of Pierce’s grandchildren, said, “When we got out from school or from the Boys and Girls Club, we had to go to our house and get supplies, and then we had to go back to her house and get ready to go to bed and then we had to get back up and then we had to do that again.”

And that led to confusion, said Nekema, who started at Pembroke Middle School on Monday, as teachers rushed to prepare for standardized tests.

“Sometimes I missed my homework,” she said, but teachers were understanding.

While providing shelter for Nekema, her siblings and their parents throughout much of the past year, Pierce also is dealing with flood damage in her own home. While insurance helped Pierce after a tree fell on her home during Hurricane Matthew, her claims to repair duct work underneath her home after Hurricane Florence have been denied so far.

“We need help to try to get back in our home so these children won’t be interrupted in their lives,” Pierce said.

But the interruptions are continuing in Robeson County, in ways both large and small.

In St. Pauls, Belcher won’t let her son bring any of his friends over after school. Their house, she said, is simply too damaged, with the exposed floors, cracks in the ceilings and places where water still comes dripping in when it rains.

“I don’t invite people over like that,” Belcher said, “because to me that’s embarrassing.”

Belcher has called several companies to make repairs, but they have told her it would be weeks before someone can even come look at the damage to make an estimate. They’ve also told her any repairs would almost certainly include work on the roof, as well.

In the meantime, Belcher worries about her house being hit by another hurricane. Unless repairs are made, Belcher said, “I don’t know if it can stand another storm.”

This story was produced with financial support from Report for America/GroundTruth Project, the North Carolina Community Foundation and the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund. The News & Observer maintains full editorial control of the work.

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Adam Wagner is a Report for America Corps member covering North Carolina’s recovery from Hurricanes Matthew and Florence, as well as efforts to prepare the state for future storms. He previously worked at the Wilmington StarNews, where he covered multiple beats, including the environment.