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Things We Discovered in

Sandy’s Aftermath 


Thomas Rogers (right), district superintendent of Nassau BOCES, inspects the damage inflicted by Superstorm Sandy at an elementary school in Long Beach, N.Y., along with New York State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. (center) and David Weiss, Long Beach's superintendent.

Shortly after Superstorm Sandy struck Long Island, I found myself being driven by a police officer through streets choked with filthy piles of sand and debris to West Elementary School in Long Beach on the island’s southern shore, alongside New York State Education Commissioner John King Jr. As we donned hazmat suits to enter the school, I quipped, “They don’t teach you this in superintendent school.”

Indeed, much of the job of school system leadership entails a “plan where you can, improvise when you must” orientation, particularly during a crisis.

As Nassau County is the first community east of New York City, our emergency response plan had been tested and refined after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That plan left little to chance, and subsequent drills and exercises ensured rapid recovery from Hurricane Irene, which just a year before made landfall on Long Island and caused unprecedented flooding in upstate New York and Vermont. Nonetheless, as forecasters’ predictions of Sandy’s destructive potential worsened, our crisis response team began working through escalated disaster scenarios.

In the days following Sandy, it became clear that the challenges would indeed be unprecedented in scope and duration. The island communities of Long Beach and Fire Island were completely inundated, others were extensively flooded. Chemicals dormant in the bottoms of sewers and oil tanks floated to the surface where they mixed with sand, seawater, dead fish and debris while flooding into homes, schools and electrical circuitry. After a week, power was sparsely restored, so even main roads cleared of thousands of fallen trees and utility poles still were uncontrolled by traffic lights, sanitation systems were disabled, and scarce gasoline to power emergency vehicles remained trapped underground.

A Vital Nerve Center
In the weeks that followed, Nassau BOCES used its centralized role, specialized expertise and state authority to help school districts file claims with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, serve as liaisons with state and county emergency managers, locate students sheltered with the Red Cross, assist the state’s environmental regulators to determine when schools were safe to reoccupy and even help the county’s Board of Elections ensure polls were open on Election Day.

As an educational service agency for the 56 districts serving Nassau County’s 225,000 students, we served as a clearinghouse for information, posting a Q&A on our website for parents and school administrators. As the BOCES superintendent, I serve as a direct line to the commissioner of education.

Our buildings largely escaped damage, so crews of our employees volunteered to help clean up elsewhere. We temporarily housed and fed the administrative staffs from three districts that had lost their buildings. This allowed them to set up call centers and web presences to give thousands of displaced parents a point of contact. Our staff’s dedication was remarkable. After a week of nonstop effort, I asked members of our crisis team how they were personally faring. Of 19 individuals, 16 had homes without power, and three were rendered homeless by the damage to their residences.

I found myself in the unexpected situation of helping authorities balance the need to reopen schools against the fragility of the transportation and emergency response infrastructure, of asking whether commuting teachers would deplete fuel reserves needed for first responders, and of “arranging marriages” between districts with flooded buildings and those that had available space.

As the scale of the aftermath became clearer, I knew we had to make it possible for the state education commissioner and other governmental leaders to walk where the flood waters had flowed, see the grime-covered classrooms and smell the growing mold to fully appreciate the challenge ahead. I coordinated multiple tours, and the commissioner, along with the chancellor of our state board of regents, pledged (and subsequently delivered) the full assistance of the state education department.

Looking Ahead
Today, 12 months later, the power is back, the floodwaters gone, the schools reopened, roads and beaches restored. But the crisis isn’t over, it’s just transforming. FEMA and insurance claims are dragging, many students are still without homes, whole neighborhoods and fragile small businesses are in tatters. Some communities have lost as much as 30 percent of their property value, leaving schools and municipalities with looming budget gaps and depressed economies.

We have learned a lot. Centralized telecommunications and virtualized servers ensured that we could instantly replicate districts’ computers, phones and web presences on our systems. Social media was a surprisingly robust communications platform for parents and staff. And as a central point of contact, we could coordinate and authenticate communications with the entire education community leadership.

But as important as these infrastructure repairs were, our human response struck me most. Employees coordinated food, clothing and bedding drives. We couldn’t deploy enough counselors and psychologists to support students and families who had lost their homes and support staff members exhausted from assisting in recovery efforts. The less-affected districts in the county rallied to supply trained assistance, as did local hospital partners.

Ultimately, that’s something they do teach you in superintendent school — the public schools are the heart of the community, and communities are made of people and relationships more than buildings. Take good care of good people, and you’ll be ready to take care of everything else.

Thomas Rogers is district superintendent of Nassau BOCES in Garden City, N.Y. E-mail: trogers@nasboces.org 


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