After Florence: some picking up the pieces while schools pick up where they left off
Back in her classroom Thursday after a two-week hiatus forced by Hurricane Florence, Pink Hill Elementary School kindergarten teacher Megan Lawson feeds Mr. Nibbly, the class’ pet guinea pig and one of those irreplaceable items Lawson rescued when floodwaters from the storm destroyed her home. Photo by Patrick Holmes / Lenoir County Public Schools
Hurricane Florence destroyed her home and disrupted the start of her school year and yet the word Megan Lawson repeatedly uses to describe the spot she’s in – though at times in a voice choked by emotion – is “blessed.”
“We’re all kind of displaced at the moment, but we’re very blessed because we have family that we can lean on for support and our faith,” the kindergarten teacher said Thursday, the first day back for LCPS students since the storm hit eastern North Carolina on Sept. 14.
“It was so good to be back and to see my children come into the classroom and to say good morning to them and see their beautiful faces and make sure they were OK. It really gives you that sense of peace and sense of calm. It’s very therapeutic.”
What should have been the 24th day of the school year felt much like Day 1, thanks to the two-week hiatus forced by the historic flooding that followed the storm. In picking up where they left off, school leaders are walking a fine line between the urge to make up lost time and the desire to provide the calm support that colleagues like Lawson and dozens of students need as they pick up the pieces.
“Most of my life is still in a box truck,” Lawson said. “We call ourselves the box truck children. When we need something we run and get it out of the box truck.”
On Sept. 13, with Florence bearing down and school in Lenoir County already cancelled, Lawson, her husband and children loaded the truck with items either essential or irreplaceable – including Mr. Nibbly, her class’ pet guinea pig – and evacuated their home in Kenansville, near the Northeast Cape Fear River, for her mother’s house in Deep Run.
When she returned, it was in a friend’s boat.
“We knew it was bad when he could put the motor all the way down in the water and just kind of cruise to the back,” she said. “When we got to the house and opened the front door, all of our flooring and everything just started floating out.”
She estimates seven feet of water covered her yard and three feet of water made it into the house.
“There’s nothing that’s really salvageable in the home because of how much water got in,” Lawson said. “I just feel very blessed because I was able to get my pictures out. I was able to get clothes out. There are things that have to be replaced, but the things that are irreplaceable we were able to get those out, and I see so many people who were not as fortunate.”
According to FEMA figures, about 1,100 Lenoir County residents have applied for individual assistance. Still, compared to the flooding that followed Hurricane Matthew here 23 months ago, Florence wrought less destruction. School buildings escaped serious damage. Preliminary estimates show fewer homes flooded and fewer residents were displaced. After Matthew, more than 200 LCPS students had been forced from their residences, either temporarily or permanently; with Florence, that number appears to be closer to 50.
The flooded Neuse River receded faster after Florence and left fewer damaged bridges and roads. Consequently, only a handful of bus routes had to be reconfigured to get students back to school on Thursday, contributing to a flawless reboot of the school year – no serious transportation problems, attendance numbers about normal and an attitude among students that Amy Eason, the school counselor at Woodington Middle School, described as “relief.”
But less destruction generally – and relatively – doesn’t diminish the pain of individual loss or lessen the need for school leaders and their teachers to be mindful of the potential for trauma among students – or at least a significant feelings of disorientation after so long away from school.
Meeting with principals and the district’s senior staff the day before students returned, Superintendent Brent Williams asked that compassion temper their real sense of urgency about making up lost class time. “We want to show students and staff members alike that we love them and that they have our support,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of getting the school doors opened again and getting lessons started again.”
On the first day back, Woodington sixth-grader Hannah Nesselrotte met the school bus outside what used to be her home. “We went to our house because we didn’t want to change the bus route, so we went to the driveway and waited for the bus,” she said Thursday.
A week earlier, flash flooding had inundated the house on Pearson Road and her family fled to her grandmother’s home in Deep Run.
“We’ve been working, trying to get reorganized and waiting for the (insurance) adjusters to come over there and help us,” Hannah said. “I’m OK. I’m just really sad. I’ve stayed there for six years and I don’t know if it’s going to be OK, if it’s going to be fixable.”
About 20 other students at Hannah’s school were similarly displaced, based on contacts made by Eason, the counselor at Woodington, and the school’s social worker.
“We’re trying to get back to business as usual,” Eason said. “As we become aware of the needs of kids, certainly we’re ready to find some resources or collaborate with other agencies to help them get back to normal.”
Getting back to school was a big step toward getting back to normal for Megan Lawson and her children – those in her class and her own three, two of whom are students at Pink Hill Elementary School where she teaches.
“It’s been really good to get back into a routine. My own children are very excited to see their teachers this morning,” she said.
“The students have been out of school just as long as they’ve been in. For them to have been out this long, they’ve done remarkably well,” she said. “They were so excited to come in this morning and show that they still knew where their carpet spaces were and still knew how to take their folder out of their book bag and put it away for me. Just having them keep that sense of excitement over school … .
“We were out for a little bit, but we’re back and we’re ready to roll. We’re excited about being back.”