TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Hurricane Ian swept across Florida at the end of September, causing roads to flood, power outages, and schools to close as resident evacuated. Florida schools were used as shelter locations in multiple counties.
Lee, DeSoto, Charlotte, Sarasota, and Hardee counties still have schools closed, according to Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr. giving an update on where things stood in the reopening and recovery process.
“At the height of the storm we had 59 school districts bracing for Hurricane Ian’s impact or serving as shelters. Now, 46 of those districts are back in school as of today,” Diaz said. “Nearly all opening by the end of this week. I have spoken to district leaders throughout the state, coordinating reopening efforts.”
The commissioner said things as simple as running payroll after the had been complicated by Ian’s impacts across Florida, but that by working with other state agencies, assets had been provided to “get districts back up and running” even while teachers and students were displaced by the storm, and generators were needed to power up.
Diaz said that in addition to the issues of power and payroll, each school district affected by Hurricane Ian was going through different issues.
“From continuing to run shelters to transitioning out of shelters to doing assessment of the properties and making sure power’s back on and communicating the needs that they will have to get these schools reopened,” Diaz said. “School districts across the state are also coming together and I’m very proud of our superintendents. We have superintendents that are not affected or were minimally affected providing resources. We had some come into Lee County with cafeteria staff to help with distribution of food over the weekend. We had facility experts from Miami-Dade coming over to help, and also experts going over to lead who have experience with crisis management.”
Diaz referred back to schools opening up at Guantanamo Bay during a Cuban refugee crisis, saying the facility experts who had helped there were no assisting in storm recovery after Ian.
During a question and answer session, Diaz also laid out next steps for reopening schools that had yet to do so.
“Like I said before, 46 of the 59, that bucket, probably the school districts that have the most to deal with are Lee, DeSoto, Charlotte, Sarasota, and Hardee counties,” Diaz said. “Some of the issues that are out of the schools’ control, as I saw yesterday when I went down there with the governor, is there’s still flooding going on, on the Peace River in Arcadia, which splits that county. There’s flooding in North Port in Sarasota, which is causing them to be split off and have to deal with the flooding, so as the process works. First of all, as Dir. [Kevin] Guthrie [Florida Dept. of Emergency Management] mentioned, they have to transition out of the emergency shelters.”
Next, schools have to assess damages to on-site property, and power and in some cases, water, also needs to be restored to schools for them to reopen. Diaz said some of the areas in Southwest Florida were still doing assessments and fixing damage, and the state was still working with them on providing assets to let them reopen. He said the resources provided could include items, as well as personnel.
“Those in the hardest hit areas are obviously going to take a little longer,” Diaz said. “The goal is to get those students back to school, to return them to normalcy, because we know. For the rest of the community to be able to deal with the issues remaining, it’s important to get the kids back into school.”