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‘We have much work to do’ — Hurricane Florence cost NC schools more than $50 million

Hurricane Florence destroys high school in Jacksonville, NC

White Oak High School in Jacksonville, North Carolina, was battered by rain and wind from Hurricane Florence.
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White Oak High School in Jacksonville, North Carolina, was battered by rain and wind from Hurricane Florence.

North Carolina’s public schools have suffered more than $50 million in damage and lost revenue from Hurricane Florence as efforts continue to get schools repaired so that thousands of students can return to classes.

State education officials painted a grim picture Wednesday of the conditions facing schools in the southeastern part of the state as families slowly recover from the damage sustained from Florence. Amid the ongoing recovery efforts, the repeated message at the State Board of Education meeting is that it will take a joint ongoing effort to help return things back to normal.

“We have much work to do to take care of each other,”said Eric Davis, chairman of the state board.

Florence caused schools throughout the state to close during last month’s storm, but southeastern North Carolina was particularly hard hit. Some school districts remain closed three weeks later.

Eileen Townsend, section chief of the school insurance fund at the state Department of Public Instruction, said they’ve reserved $40 million to deal with the claims that are still coming in. She said the amount is higher than the $14 million in losses after Hurricane Matthew in 2016 because of all the wind and flooding damage from Florence.

“It’s amazing that some of the counties are still there on the coast because it was just so bad and so much rain and so much devastation,” Townsend said.

The closure of schools means an estimated $14 million in lost revenue for school child nutrition programs, according to Lynn Harvey, section chief of DPI child nutrition services. State lawmakers agreed to provide $6.5 million to cover some of the losses.

Harvey praised the child nutrition staff at area schools who came in and served meals to evacuees who were using schools as emergency shelters.

“They attended to tired, weary, anxious, scared evacuees while their own personal households were in peril,” Harvey said. “These men and woman are truly unsung heroes in their local communities.”

Once the remaining schools reopen, districts will have enough buses to resume providing transportation, according to Kevin Harrison, section chief of DPI transportation services. He said remaining challenges include dealing with road closures and providing service for students who’ve been left homeless due to the storm.

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Efforts are underway to help families and school employees in storm-damaged communities.

The General Assembly unanimously passed legislation Tuesday to ensure that school employees will be paid for the days that schools were closed due to Florence. The legislation allows school districts to waive up to 20 lost school days so they don’t have to be made up by students and staff.

Lawmakers have said that once more information about storm damage becomes available they’ll look at other actions, such as providing money to help repair school buildings.

A coalition of education and business leaders announced last week the creation of Florence Aid to Students and Teachers of North Carolina (FAST NC), which will collect money to give to victims of the storm. More information can be found on the FAST NC website, www.ncpublicschools.org/fastnc, which is now accepting online credit card donations.

“We as adults must demonstrate in the weeks and months to come that we are going to open our pocketbooks to help the thousands of students and educators across North Carolina to get back to a normal state,” said June Atkinson, a former state superintendent and a member of the FAST NC steering committee.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson, who is also a member of the FAST NC steering committee, encouraged educators and civic groups in unaffected parts of the state to hold fundraising and school supply drives. He said Kevin Wilkinson, his policy advisor, had gotten First Book to donate 10,000 books, worth $80,000, to the relief effort.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

USGS/NASA Landsat 8 images illustrate the intense flooding that developed around Goldsboro, NC when record-breaking rainfall from Hurricane Florence caused the Neuse River to overtop its banks and crest at 27.6 feet Sept. 18, 2018.

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