Hurricane Ian — One Year Later: School in Session
The Lee County School District weathered Ian well
Out of 77 damaged schools due to the unforgiving path Hurricane Ian took through Lee County, only two still have no students — one is still in need of further repair, and the other needs to be completely rebuilt.
Hurricane Ian caused an estimate $300 million in damage, which will most likely increase as all of the work has yet to be completed. So, far, FEMA has committed $10.9 million in reimbursements to the school district.
“We are extremely grateful to our legislative delegation and the Florida Department of Education for their support. We are extremely grateful to our staff, families and students that rebounded with such resilience. We are extremely grateful to our community partners and volunteers who stepped up to help when it was needed most,” School District of Lee County spokesperson Rob Spicker said.
Ahead of the storm
“Internal meetings started a week before the storm hit,” Spicker said. “We started advising schools about securing their campuses and supplied our shelter schools with food, toiletries and other necessities should they be needed. We embedded personnel into the Lee County Emergency Operations Center as soon as it was activated and immediately announced the closure of our schools when the decision was made by EOC staff to open shelters.”
The district, several days before the storm hit, engaged its insurance companies, so open communication could be had with them.
“We also entered into a contract with a consultant who could help us manage the FEMA reimbursement process to ensure from the first day of any recovery effort we were preparing and including the proper documentation FEMA required to ensure the maximum reimbursement,” Spicker said.
The district opened 13 schools as shelters before Hurricane Ian impacted Southwest Florida.
Once the wind, rain and storm surge finally subsided, school principals became the first eyes on each campus.
“They were tasked with conducting a preliminary assessment of their campuses. That was followed by an aerial assessment by the Superintendent (Dr. Christopher Bernier) and Florida Commissioner of Education of some of the more damaged campuses,” Spicker said. “The superintendent and principals returned for a ground tour to the most damaged campuses. Maintenance personnel were also dispatched to campuses for their assessment of the damage.
Knowing we could not rely on cursory inspections we engaged certified building professionals for a comprehensive report on the damage and necessary repairs.”
Four schools reported no damage in their initial assessments, which included East Lee County High School, Lehigh Acres Middle School, Mirror Lakes Elementary School and Veterans Park Academy for the Arts.
Schools with the most damage
The schools that suffered the most damage included Fort Myers Beach Elementary, Hector A. Cafferata Elementary School, The Sanibel School, Lexington Middle School and Diplomat Middle School.
Fort Myers Beach Elementary School was covered by 10 feet of water, damaging the plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems beyond repair. Spicker said the outer buildings on the campus have all been demolished since the hurricane. The historic building, on the other hand, is being renovated with a target of returning the school’s 50 students to the building.
“Students at Fort Myers Beach are attending classes at San Carlos Park. The goal is to return them to their campus on the beach on Nov. 13,” he said.
Hurricane Ian took the majority of the Hector A. Cafferata Elementary roof, resulting in extensive water damage throughout the Cape Coral school.
“The school will be demolished and a new K-8 at a site a few miles away is planned for construction,” Spicker said. “Hector Cafferata students are in portables next to Cape Coral Tech. The School Board is expected to approve the documents necessary to start building the new K-8 soon and the earliest it could be complete is in 2025.”
The Sanibel School took on 4 feet of water throughout the campus. The damage was repaired and students returned to their school in February, after they too were sharing a campus with San Carlos Park Elementary School.
Another school that took on quite a bit of water was Lexington Middle School with 18 inches on the first floor. The students were able to return to their school on Oct. 31, after repairs were made.
Diplomat Middle School in Cape Coral also suffered roof and window damage following the storm, which were repaired allowing students to return to the campus on Oct. 31.
The remaining campus that suffered damage opened between Oct. 17 and Oct. 21.
“We had help from district’s around the state, including Miami-Dade, Broward, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Glades, Osceola, Marion, St. John’s and Volusia sending personnel. Our maintenance staff was preforming as much repair work as they could manage. We also entered into a contract with Cotton Commercial USA and used our previously approved vendors already under contract for repairs,” Spicker said.
The district established a nine safety criteria checklist before opening a school for students, teachers and staff. That set included reliable power, potable water, professional assessment, leak secure, working A/C, functioning fire alarm and intercom, indoor air quality, debris cleaned u and ability to serve food.
The maintenance department completed all the repairs they could manage. The remaining permanent repairs can be viewed at leeschools.net/weather_watch.
With more than 200 teachers displaced due to their homes being damaged, as well as many families and students, the district offered many resources to them.
Some of those examples for families included mental health support, connections to social services and community organizations, food, water and supply distributions, extended time away from school if necessary, tutoring, test preparation and other academic supports.
Similar examples of supports were also given to staff, which also included connections to free legal document review and uninterrupted pay.
As with any storm there is always reflection to see if procedures, policies and plans need to be tweaked.
“We really found that our values worked. In the immediate aftermath we regularly talked about putting our people first. Staff had to be in a position where they were ready and able to return to work before anything else, so we provided the support, grace and compassion they needed,” Spicker said. “We were in a developmental and transitional process during recovery, so we didn’t always have all the answers, but we were constantly working to find them and providing them as soon as possible. We recognized the disproportionate impact of the Hurricane and understood that not all our staff, our students, our families or our buildings needed the same attention, which allowed us to devote resources where they were needed most. We recognized that even incremental progress was progress, and every step forward, no matter how small, was important.”