March 2023
Disaster Preparedness

Disaster Preparedness Takes Planning

During the 2020-2021 school year, Lake Charles, Louisiana experienced five national disasters. On March 13, 2020, the nation shut down schools due to the pandemic, and our school, Bishop Noland Episcopal Day School,started teaching virtually within a week’s time. In the fall, our original start date of Monday, August 10, was moved back to August 24 due to the high number of COVID cases. At that time we had both face-to-face and virtual students.

We evacuated for Hurricane Laura on Thursday, August 27, and it hit Lake Charles directly on Saturday as a Category 4+ hurricane. Everyone worked feverishly to get debris removed and streets cleared. We had to wait weeks for the power to be restored. The second start date was Monday, September 28. All schools closed a week later to evacuate for Hurricane Delta, which hit our city on Wednesday, October 7. Our next start date was Monday, October 19. The city was decimated, and many did not come back.

In February, there was an ice storm which took out power and water in the city. In May, a catastrophic flood damaged many homes that had made it through both hurricanes. Much of this was due to the fact that debris had not been removed from the bayous and ditches after the storm. None of the laterals used to drain the water away were clear.

This is the setting from which I offer ideas for plans to put in place for any national disaster and for recovery, even through all the losses.

What can you be doing now

• Records: Be sure you have an emergency data form for every employee listing the same information that you require from your students. One important additional piece of information is where they would go in the event of an evacuation and contacts at that place. Check your insurance coverage to make sure you have enough to replace and rebuild. Scan birth certificates and health immunizations during enrollment. Most schools have grades already stored and sent out digitally. Scan the front of the cumulative folder. Paper files are not enough.

• Finance: Employees need to know how many months the school will pay them if the school cannot reopen or is closed for a long period of time. Three months’ pay is what has been written into contracts after many hurricanes, but that means having a contingency fund reserving the amount needed to honor those contracts. Be sure that all employees are paid on direct deposit and that tuition can be automatically drafted from parents’ bank accounts. The finance department/bookkeeper/CFO can evacuate to a city with power and internet to do payroll.

• Tuition – to charge or not to charge: Tuition for students who are not being taught virtually is a question to wrestle with ahead of time. Now that COVID has taught us how to teach virtually and effectively, tuition is not such a huge topic of discussion, but it needs addressing. A school can justify charging tuition if learning is going on, online attendance is being noted and assignments are being submitted. However, many students will enroll in other private schools that may charge tuition, and who is going to owe tuition in those situations must also be resolved.

• Virtual learning: Faculty need professional development on the online platform the school is using to post videos, classroom assignments and instruction. Expectations must be clearly outlined and written down. If all the enrichment faculty post daily, in addition to the core faculty, there may be too much screen time for a student.

Younger students cannot get online without the help of an adult. The adults who are living through the crises do not have the same energy to help with homework at the end of their workday. They are working to get their own homes repaired and livable again. In a family where there are many children using the same computer, two or three teachers cannot schedule a live Google Meet or Zoom at the same time. Teachers must be able to record the lessons and give access to the students.

If virtual teaching is the plan for delivering instruction, all the faculty must have a computer with a camera. Many teachers will use their own home computers, but any without a suitable computer at home must be provided with one. Inexpensive clip-on cameras can be purchased for employees who have computers without cameras. Students who are in preschool need much less work, but we found that having their own homeroom teacher read a bedtime story to them was comforting. Every student, starting with three-year-olds, needs to have an internal safe email account so that parents can feel safe about virtual learning.

Steps to take when an evacuation is likely

• Plan for leaving the school when an evacuation is ordered: The school needs to be ready for the evacuation before everyone leaves. All food and perishable items must be removed and taken out to the trash. All electronic devices should be unplugged from the wall and the IT person must let others know when the main server will be powered down and turned off. No animals may be allowed to stay. Be prepared if the school has large fish tanks that cannot be removed when the power is out. Without an air supply, the fish die and the tanks must be emptied as soon as possible. Everything that can be damaged by water and wind needs to be moved away from windows and off the floor. Everything that can fly in hurricane force winds and damage other things must be brought inside or secured. This includes outdoor chairs, toys, trash, etc. Walk the campuses and make videos of the condition of buildings and classrooms.

Insurance: The administration should have contacts for insurance representatives and all maintenance contractors. If there are cell numbers for electricians, plumbers, roofers and general contractors, take them with you as you leave. When the power is out and cell towers are down, phone calls do not go through, but text messages do. The insurance policy needs to be printed or put online for reference. Call and start the claim as soon as possible. Be prepared that there may be many adjusters, and a claim could end up in court to get settled.

Recovery after the event

In order to start back to school, find out who can return. If the school can open with a reduced staff and student count, it will give parents a chance to work on remediating their damage without worrying about how to keep their children safe. The huge amounts of debris and damaged homes creates unsafe places for children.

Hurricane recovery takes a long time depending on the amount of damage. Get back on campus as soon as possible to examine the buildings and property. Begin recording the damage using a spreadsheet and photos. Document the contents and damage to property. For insurance, the more information you have about original costs, serial numbers, descriptions, etc., the better. Have a plan to patch any broken windows with boards until glass can be replaced. Tarps are used to cover roofs. Get trees cut away from the buildings so a tarp can be put on the roof to prevent more damage. Be sure to have pictures before removing the trees.

Work with a general contractor if possible. Otherwise, start calling the contractors you need. Keep a spreadsheet of contractors, their contacts and their start date and what they do. It is very important not to take the word of a contractor from another city who shows up to help right away. Get bids in writing. Be careful what you sign. Read the fine print. Some storm chasers charge exorbitant prices for their tree removal and drying out plan, and only later do you find their workmanship is not adequate. All that work has to be pulled down or off later, and the school will need to pay for it twice to get it done correctly or go to court to help retrieve costs.

Dry out the places that took on water. Pull up any carpet that is wet and flooring that was flooded. Cut out the wet sheetrock. Lack of power and heat start mold growing. Large generators that power air conditioning and fans can help protect areas that have not been damaged.

Students want to come back to school to be with their teachers and friends to feel safe again. You must find out who is able to return and when. Start with faculty members to be sure they can come back. If school is closed for a period of time, adjust the start and end time by a few minutes. Have a little less recess or lunch time so there is no need to cut back on all the holidays. Forgo the in-service days to add days back into the schedule. These minutes will add up.

It is important just to listen and share stories when everyone returns. Worry less about the curriculum and more about spending the time it takes to love the students and reassure them that we’ll all get through this together. Teaching is secondary in the beginning. Everyone needs to be together and to gain strength from realizing they are not alone. Our faith gets us through it all.

The Reverend Frances “Boo” Kay is Head of School at Bishop Noland Episcopal Day School in Lake Charles, LA. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree from Louisiana State University in 1970 and taught fourth, fifth and sixth grade at EDS before becoming Head of School in 1986. She continued her education and completed a Master’s degree in 1986 and an Education Specialist degree in 1990. She is on the Standards Committee of the Southwestern Association of Episcopal Schools and is the chair of the Commission on Schools in the Diocese of Western Louisiana. She was ordained as a deacon in 2000 and then much later became priest. In 2003, she received the John Verdery Award from the National Association of Episcopal Schools for service to Episcopal Schools. She has three sons and five grandchildren who attended EDS.

Photocredit: The Reverend Frances “Boo” Kay


This article is part of the March 2023 Vestry Papers issue on Disaster Preparedness