Students in Louisiana started this school year almost fully in-person. But a week and a half after Hurricane Ida tore through the state, hundreds of thousands of K-12 students are stuck at home waiting for classrooms to reopen.
With power now mostly restored in the state’s major metropolitan areas, including New Orleans and Baton Rouge, between 50,000 and 75,000 students are expected to return to the classroom in the coming week, according to Louisiana Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley.
But more than 45,000 students in the state’s hard-hit River Parishes could face a month or more of school closures due to ongoing power outages, lack of running water and significant structural damage.
Susan Adams, a high school English teacher in Terrebonne Parish, described the damage at the school where she’s taught for 20 years as “really bad.”
“We all knew that there was definitely going to be water in the school, but the extent of the water in the school is kind of mind blowing,” the South Terrebonne High School teacher said in a phone interview earlier this week.
From what she’s seen from frequent visits to the National Guard aid station next to the school or from pictures shared by local leaders, the walls and floors are slick with mud, the windows are blown out and pieces of the roof are strewn everywhere.
Karl Bruchhaus, superintendent of Calcasieu Parish Public Schools, was in the exact same situation a year ago after another Category 4 storm, Hurricane Laura, devastated his district.
With most buildings significantly damaged, they first attempted to pivot students to virtual instruction. Widespread internet outages made learning online largely impossible even after power was restored.
The district reopened buildings with the least damage first in an effort to connect vulnerable students with necessities like food and air conditioning, Bruchhaus said. At the same time, they quickly installed temporary roofs and brought in fans to dry out wet schools in an effort to prevent more extensive water damage — and more costly repairs further down the line.
But more than a year later, the district still hasn’t been able to repair the bulk of hurricane damage due to a lack of funding.
“There's just hurdle after hurdle after hurdle,” he said. “If it's not the federal process, then when it gets to the state, there's another process and, you know, our vendors, they're not going to work for free.”
Calcasieu Parish Public Schools suffered more than $400 million in hurricane damage to its buildings last year. Laura hit in August, followed by Hurricane Delta six weeks later. Bruchhaus said the district has requested nearly $300 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements to date, but has only received $116,000.
Bruchhaus said he’s tried his best to shield schools from the financial challenges the system is facing. But with students and teachers attending classes in damaged buildings, there’s only so much he can hide from them.
“They’re going to school with concrete floors and no tile on the floor. They’re going to school with roof leaks when it rains,” Bruchhaus said. “They're accepting all of that and frankly, we're having a pretty good instructional year absent the COVID issue, which is a daily debacle.”
FEMA reimbursements are known for being deliberately cumbersome in an effort to prevent fraud. For cash-strapped districts like Calcasieu, the process has proved disastrous.
New Orleans Public Radio spoke with Bruchhaus by phone on Sept. 6. The following day, the district halted all hurricane recovery construction projects due to lack of funding, according to a school board statement released Wednesday.
The situation doesn’t bode well for other districts facing significant repairs due to Hurricane Ida. Schools have received a significant amount of money from the federal government for COVID over the last year, but Bruchhaus said it’s his understanding that it can’t be used for storm repairs. Unless districts have an incredibly healthy fund balance, they will also need to turn to FEMA for assistance, he said.
In an interview with New Orleans Public Radio, State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said he understands firsthand how challenging the FEMA reimbursement process can be. Before his current role, he served as superintendent of Jefferson Parish Public Schools where he was still working on securing FEMA reimbursements from Hurricane Katrina 15 years after the storm made landfall.
“Unfortunately that process is not as expedient as people would like it to be,” he said. “What we are going to do to support Superintendent Bruchhaus and [other system] leaders is continue to advocate with our congressional delegation around trying to push FEMA to move as quickly as they possibly can.”
Brumley said the lack of damage to school buildings from Hurricane Ida in New Orleans — where FEMA money was used to rebuild or fortify schools after Hurricane Katrina — is a testament to what federal money can do when districts can get their hands on it.
For now, Bruchhaus said all teachers and school leaders can do is be there for their students as best they can and not let the storm or the coronavirus pandemic further derail their education.
“We’ve got to think far out into the future for that second or third grader. If they lose one year to COVID, which they’ve already lost, and another two years to hurricanes, will they recover?” he said. “In 12 years, it's not going to be a good excuse for that child to not be functioning at a high level and say, ‘Well, we had a hurricane 12 years ago and that held me back.’ We can’t let that happen.”
New Orleans Public Radio reached out to both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and to relevant state agencies but had not heard back in time for the publication of this story.