Galveston resident Patrick Delaney is equal parts devastated and frustrated. Hurricane Ike's storm surge flooded his home with 9 feet of water, and like many of his neighbors' homes, Delaney's is now uninhabitable. Though this Texas native's to-do list includes such mammoth tasks as finding temporary housing, rebuilding his home, and navigating federal bureaucracy in hopes of receiving disaster relief aid, Delaney said his No. 1 priority is getting his three daughters re-enrolled in school. "My wife and I have looked at trying to keep them in school in Texas, but it's too damn expensive to pay your mortgage and pay a few thousand dollars a month to rent a house in the area," said Delaney, 47. "We don't have a house in Texas anymore, and until we do there is no point in thinking about going back or trying to re-enroll my girls in their old schools." Superintendent Lynne Cleveland says she hopes to reopen the Galveston Independent School District on October 6 but expects fewer than half of the 8,000 students enrolled before Ike hit to return on that day, with 10,000 to 20,000 Galveston residents having lost their homes in the storm. As families like the Delaneys start getting their homes back, enrollment will increase slightly throughout the year, but Cleveland does not anticipate matching pre-storm enrollment numbers this school year.
Cleveland echoes Delaney's frustrations and speaks of how difficult it is for families and teachers to find temporary housing within reasonable driving distance of the island and simply how difficult it is to live there right now. Eighty-five percent of the teachers Cleveland's office has spoken with reported they would be able to return to work once the schools reopen, but many students will not have that opportunity. Large piles of debris, swarms of flies and mosquitoes, and displaced rattlesnakes all threaten residents' ability to bring their children back to even visit their old homes.
"Children I spoke with personally who were evacuated to San Antonio wanted to know, 'Is my school OK? When can I come back to my school?,'" she says. "Many children have never left the island before now and they want to come home, but I'm encouraging parents currently living elsewhere to enroll their students in those temporary locations as soon as possible. That stability and regular school schedule will prove beneficial for the children."
Four Galveston public school campuses sustained significant water damage and will not reopen for three to four months, Cleveland says, but each of the town's 11 public school structures stood up to Ike remarkably well. No campuses were completely demolished. She adds that her plan to reopen one elementary, one middle, one magnet middle, and one high school is contingent upon Galveston's electricity, water, sewage, and gas infrastructure being operational by that time as well.
The district is spending about $1 million a day to repair and dehumidify the schools before power is restored, and Cleveland estimates the district will spend at least $25 million restoring what was lost to Ike. Along with repairs, Galveston will eventually need to replace the football stadium, track, and practice field located at Ball High School as well as some band instruments, library books, and assorted essential teaching materials lost to storm damage in the other schools.
"Living on the Gulf, you know hurricanes can happen and you've helped others through it, but it's tough to go through it firsthand," Cleveland says. "People who don't know Galveston will quickly come to understand the tenacity of its residents to do what they need to do to put their community back together."
Texas Education Association Commissioner Robert Scott says he is trying to make it as easy as possible for school districts like Galveston to get back on their feet by having money available to help cover the mounting costs of cleanup work and overtime wages for cleanup crews. Though he does not want schools closed any longer than they have to be, Scott says he wants only schools that are completely safe for students and staff to open.
The Houston and Cypress Fairbanks Independent school districts, the two largest districts affected by Ike, both partially reopened Monday. Houston served about 196,000 students before the storm and Cypress Fairbanks served about 100,000 students. Though Houston is prepared to accept out-of-district students like those from Galveston and can help them buy school supplies, school clothes, and even counseling for students distressed about their families' displacement, Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra says only about 100 have enrolled so far.