Lessons from a disaster on the Great Plains

Floodwaters swept away homes, schools, and other buildings in Minot, N.D., in 2011. The community rallied to continue providing an education for its children, teaching us all lessons in how it’s done.

 

The Souris River runs through Minot, N.D., and, most of the time, citizens enjoy fishing, skiing, or walking near it. However, in June 2011, after a snowy winter, wet spring, and torrential storm upstream, emergency managers predicted flooding in the city of Minot and ordered evacuations. Residents had about two days to remove everything from houses, schools, businesses, and churches in the river valley. Those who have recently moved appreciate the challenges of packing up a house. Imagine one-quarter of the town — about 11,000 people with more than 4,100 properties — racing to throw possessions into cardboard boxes, plastic totes, garbage bags, and vehicles to move to higher ground. Imagine at the same time that construction trucks are racing to build emergency dikes to protect sections of town, businesses, and a few neighborhoods.

Evacuation sirens sounded on June 22, and four days later, the water crested at a level that was higher than the 100-year flood level. However, the water receded slowly, and many people had to wait between one and four weeks to get to their properties to start repairing their homes — tearing out damaged walls, electrical wiring, furnaces, appliances, and items left behind.

Recovery from natural disasters is a long process. More than two years have passed since the flood, but many physical, financial, and emotional scars remain. Teachers, administrators, staff, and students in the Minot schools have done an impressive job of supporting each other. Their stories are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and often amazing.

Challenges for schools and community

Minot is a rural community with a limited housing supply due to an oil boom in western North Dakota.

Families spent the first year after the flood in transitional housing living with friends or family or in the more than 2,500 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) temporary houses that arrived between September and December. Families who were able to remove items before the floodwaters arrived stored possessions in storage units or friends’ garages. Families faced many difficult financial and emotional decisions; fewer than 10% of them had
flood insurance, and many faced rebuilding costs of at least $100,000. In many cases, that exceeded the previous value of their homes. Repairs happened slowly because there was more work than contractors in town, even though construction workers flocked to the community for work, putting even more pressure on a tight housing situation. In addition, the city proposed a number of plans for buying out houses next to the river, but, more than two years later, the plans are not yet finalized. By the second year after the flood, many homeowners moved back into their
houses, but some families who rented at the time of the flood continued to have difficulty finding affordable
housing. Other houses remain untouched.

“Buildings do not make schools. People make schools.”

The Minot Public Schools, which were on summer recess when the flood hit, sustained $76 million in damages. Four elementary schools had sewer seepage in the basement; an elementary school and a middle school were destroyed by floodwater and torn down; one elementary school, the adult learning center, and Head Start were damaged and rebuilt; and the alternative high school was relocated. Three schools held classes in temporary spaces for two years
while remodeling and construction occurred.

Three approaches to temporary spaces

The school district took different approaches to creating temporary spaces:

#1. Use portables and remodel.
Longfellow Elementary School flooded with 30 inches of water at one end of the building and four inches at the other end because of uneven terrain. The district decided to remodel and add onto Longfellow and moved the school into portable classrooms during the two-year construction period. For the first four months of the 2011-12 school year, physical education classes took place outside or in a hallway, and students ate cold sack lunches in their classrooms because there was no gym or cafeteria space. On the first day in the new gym/cafeteria, a kindergartner ate his first hot lunch and remarked, “This is great! Can we do this again?” Portable classrooms provided two luxuries for the school: air conditioning and sufficient electrical outlets. The classrooms presented a few challenges for
kindergarten teachers because bathrooms were down the hall, and coat hooks were too tall for the kids to reach, but overall the portables worked well.

#2. Relocate then close the school.
Twelve feet of floodwater invaded Lincoln Elementary School. The building suffered significant contamination
from the floodwater, and the district made the difficult decision to demolish the building. Lincoln students attended school in a local church for two years, and then the district redrew school boundaries to disperse students among four elementary schools starting in August 2013. Sharing space is complicated. For example, Lincoln’s 5th-grade class
had 16 students in a tiny classroom measuring 16-by-24 feet. They shared one wall with a preschool, so the class was regularly serenaded with favorites such as “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” The teacher reported that students would sometimes hum along and then go back to their work.

Funerals at the church presented the biggest challenges for teachers because classrooms and hallways had to be quiet. On those occasions, staff and students used a different set of bathrooms, the kids ate sack lunches in their classrooms, physical education class was relocated outside to a nearby park and everyone walked outside around the building to get to music class. In spite of the challenges, students and staff appreciated two more years with their Lincoln family and rarely complained.
#3. Use portables; build new school.

In 1969, Ramstad Middle School flooded with 36 inches of water. In 2011, the district constructed a temporary 14-foot dirt dike to protect the school. But the floodwater reached more than 13 feet, breaking portions of the dike and cascading over it. Water flowed at more than 25,000 cubic feet per second and destroyed everything inside the building, including cement block interior walls. The campus, which housed about 550 students, relocated to the city auditorium with adjacent portable classrooms for 2½ years during construction of a new campus above the
flood plain. Despite the region’s below-zero temperatures, middle school fashion rarely includes wearing
coats, so students readily adapted to the lack of lockers and walking outside between classes.

Teachers of elective classes adapted creatively to their odd spaces. Band and orchestra started in the auditorium entrance with blue curtains attempting to block out the sun from the south-facing entrance of glass doors. Students stored their instruments in the halls and not one was lost or stolen. After moving a few times for basketball tournaments, they relocated to a smaller but more hidden room that served as the park board meeting room. Unfortunately, the large marimba did not fit, so it remained in the auditorium entrance where dedicated percussionists like Christopher (my son) and Zach practiced in the middle of the hall, sometimes attracting an audience of passersby. Technology education had limited space in the auditorium, so the school periodically bused middle school students to the high school to use equipment. For Ramstad, the space proved challenging but workable.

Lessons learned

Gift cards and personal messages are the best donations. Schools can easily replace desks, chairs, and textbooks, but classroom materials are more difficult. Ramstad Middle School teachers lost everything because the dike was expected to protect the school and its contents. Many materials from Lincoln and Longfellow were moved to the second floor, and the floodwaters did not reach them, but all items had to be professionally cleaned, and some items got lost, thrown out, or mixed up. Teachers often dedicate their hearts and large portions of their wallets to their classrooms. Teachers most regretted losing personal items, including artifacts from a trip to Alaska, class photos, a
Who’s Who Among American Teachers plaque, presents from students, and a purple plush couch. Longfellow
School lost photo albums and memorabilia dating to the school’s founding in 1949.

Three kinds of generous donations poured into the schools from all over the country. First, donations of books, backpacks, and school supplies arrived by the truckload. Everyone expressed thanks for the generosity, but eventually donations became a challenge to sort, store, and distribute. Second, money and gift cards arrived. Ramstad used monetary donations to buy things like new musical instruments and a set of textbooks that students could leave at home since they had no lockers. Teachers used gift cards to replace classroom items like holiday decorations, pillows, and posters. Schools used gift cards to help families who lost or packed away key items. One administrator described a boy standing at the edge of the playground crying on the first snowy day because his boots were missing, and he couldn’t play. The gift cards allowed flexibility for schools to give money to staff, teachers, or families who most needed the help.

A third set of donations offered meaningful messages. Discovery Middle School in Fargo, N.D., sent ceiling tiles decorated with pictures and encouraging personal messages to Ramstad. The ceiling tiles will be placed in the new building. The Stars of Hope organization came to Minot and placed 3,000 handpainted wooden stars with encouraging messages in the flooded neighborhoods around the schools. Stars of Hope uses a pay-it-forward model so community members in Minot and in Joplin, Mo., site of a destructive tornado a month before Minot’s flood, created the stars for Minot. People in Minot made stars for those affected by Hurricane Sandy. Teachers, staff, and administrators thanked everyone for their thoughtfulness, but found money and personal messages most helpful and most direct.

School provided a safe, warm, predictable place to come every day and focus on learning rather than the challenges of the flood.

Listen to students to decide when and how to talk about it. Many teachers started the first school year after the flood by letting students talk and write about their experiences. Most students had stories of how they moved because their house was flooded or how they provided shelter or storage space for another family. Older students and parents helped friends and families clean out and repair houses or volunteered with the American Red Cross or the Salvation Army to provide immediate supplies or meals. Because the river bisects the town from east to west, all major north/south roads were closed. For about a month, trips to the other side of town took from 45 minutes to 3 hours instead of 15 minutes, so everyone had a traffic jam story. A particularly poignant story came from a kindergartner who was asked to draw his house and did so by covering his paper with blue crayon, explaining that his house was under water.

After the initial discussion, many teachers let students decide how much they wanted to talk about the flood. Some elementary students came in with regular progress reports when something was completed or if they found a box with toys that had been packed away or if their family looked for a new place. One teacher who lived in a FEMA trailer said students compared features of their two-bedroom trailers with her three-bedroom trailer. Other students calmly reported that they “used to have one of those but we lost it in the flood” or that they usually traveled to a nearby city but couldn’t now because their parents needed the money to fix their house. Many of the middle school teachers did not know whose house was flooded unless the topic came up in class.

When related concepts came up in the curriculum, students had a lot to say. Kindergarten students studied community helpers and talked about how construction workers helped rebuild houses. When they studied compound words, they thought “flood houses” was a compound word. When 2nd and 4th graders read stories about natural disasters, kids discussed their own experiences. Fifth graders regularly wrote about connections in their journals. The 7th-grade geography teacher reported that she no longer needed to explain dams. When the geography teacher had students look for their houses on Google Earth in the second school year after the flood, some kids found preflood photographs, some kids found photographs with all the debris from their house on the boulevard, and one girl found nothing because the emergency dike had been built through her house. A number of teachers used videos made by local television stations or the Weather Channel to help explain why the city flooded. The geography teachers also described a project in which a gifted and talented class in Indiana studying natural disasters interviewed one of her classes over Skype. All of the teachers said that when a topic related to the flood connected to something in their lives, many children eagerly shared, and other students listened and supported them.

Expect that kids listened but may not have understood. For much of the year after the flood, conversations started with the question, “Did your house flood?” Answers ranged from “No, our house is on the hill,” to “We got some sewer backup in our basement,” to “We got 11 feet on the main floor,” to “The city built the dike in the middle of our house.” So, not surprisingly, teachers heard kindergartners having the same conversations whether they understood sewer backup or not. One after-school caregiver asked a kindergarten student where he was moving, and the child replied, “Up on a hill because we are NOT flooding again!”

At the same time, young children don’t always understand everything they hear. Longfellow kindergartners watched the school remodeling process and worried that their teacher would go away the next year when they moved into the new building. She assured them that she would still be there, although she would not be their teacher. When she asked them why they were worried about this, they explained that when buildings were remodeled, the construction workers left and they thought she would leave too. Kids learned flood vocabulary quickly but did not always understand all the concepts.

School is a stable refuge for everyone. Many teachers described how grateful students were to come to school every day and have a stable environment. A 2nd-grade teacher noticed that some students who lost things in the flood guarded their school supplies very carefully and became concerned when they couldn’t find items. One teacher reported that she loved to come to school because school was warm, and she had trouble keeping her trailer and her flooded house warm enough. Another teacher described a family who lived in a flooded house all winter with no running water, electricity, or heat but refused any assistance. One school, Sunnyside, did not flood but included a mixture of students who lived in trailer parks as well as those in houses. Teachers noticed that students who moved frequently had an easier time with the temporary conditions and having their personal items put away in storage or lost. For these children school provided a safe, warm learning rather than the challenges of the flood.

Good relationships help. Every teacher reported that emotions ran high for the two years after the flood. A 5th-grade teacher said, “I noticed I need to give a lot more hugs, and there were a lot more tears. An issue would come up and I would take the student out into the hall, and the problem would really be about the flood.” Every teacher reported that students supported each other and that the flood fostered a spirit of helping others. Fifth graders walked to a flooded park to help pick up trash. However, when young children try to help, that sometimes makes more work. Kindergartners offered to help their teacher at Longfellow pack up for the move to the newly remodeled school, but the teacher politely declined. Another kindergartner was frustrated that a parent was taking a week off work to paint the house and didn’t want the child to stay home and help. Teachers also spent more time listening and helping other teachers. Often that meant staying 10 minutes longer in the teachers’ lounge listening or offering to help while the teacher finished a phone call with a contractor or with FEMA.

Commemorate respectfully. Before Lincoln Elementary and Erik Ramstad Middle Schools were torn down, the district hosted decommissioning ceremonies. Many children, parents, and community members attended the ceremonies. As one teacher said, “The building was important because it was a place for the community to come together, and there was a place for everyone. Some students had parents who had attended Lincoln. One teacher’s dad built the school and built her house in the neighborhood, and both got flooded. There were teachers who had spent their entire career at the school.” Ramstad’s former principal reminded everyone at the ceremony that “buildings do not make schools; people make schools.”

The decommissioning ceremonies provided opportunities for everyone to say good-bye to the buildings and also celebrate and support the people who made that building a school. The past two years have challenged the entire community. Pockets of the city look abandoned and barely touched since the flood, and other previously flooded neighborhoods look like nothing happened. Longfellow opened this fall with a remodeled and expanded new building and freshly sprayed grass seed. Construction continues on the new Ramstad Middle School, and everyone hopes to start school in the new building in December 2013. The city will never be the same, but schools provided a stable educational environment for everyone.

One 2nd-grade teacher commented about working with kids during a crisis, “Love them. Be there. Hug them. It’s really the same advice for every year.” It seems especially appropriate when so much is in turmoil.

 

This article originally appeared in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of Kappan.

 

KATHY HINTZ (kathy.hintz@minotstateu.edu) is an assistant professor in education and social science at Minot State University, Minot, N.D.

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