Two Months After Hurricanes Devastate the Caribbean, Schools Fight to Rise

Editor’s note: Since hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in September, many schools have contacted NAIS asking how they can support relief efforts. Baldwin School of Puerto Rico has teamed with the Caribbean Association of Independent Schools to respond. Spearheading this effort is James Nelligan, Baldwin’s headmaster and the association’s president. He shares his story with us.

Two days out, meteorological modeling indicated that Hurricane Irma, one of the strongest storms ever recorded, would make landfall here in Puerto Rico on September 6. One by one, Irma ravaged the islands between us and it — Barbuda, St. Martin, Tortola, St. Thomas, and St. John. We watched the devastation unfold in real time on the news. We had no choice but to bunker down and brace for a direct hit. By chance, Irma shifted north as it continued its westerly trek through the Caribbean. While most of Puerto Rico breathed a sigh of relief, word of devastation across the American and British Virgin Islands quickly turned our attentions to relief efforts there. 

Our deliverance was short-lived. On Sunday, the same day that we ferried water, food, and critical supplies to the desperate denizens of Jost Van Dyke (BVI), Maria strengthened into a hurricane. By Tuesday, Maria had become the second Category 5 hurricane to threaten Puerto Rico in as many weeks. Its course set, our luck had run out.

At Baldwin, a tree-covered, 23-acre suburban campus, my staff and I readied our school as best we could. I exchanged strategies and timelines with a number of my fellow heads. We wondered collectively if we would have schools to return to in the coming days, and wished each other luck.  Personally, my thoughts turned to the safety and well-being of our students, families, and staffs.

For a harrowing 18 hours, we massed in narrow halls and dark rooms, ducked behind concrete and mattresses, battled every type of damage and flooding, and prayed we’d all be OK. Already weakened public utilities didn't last long. Roofs collected so much rain that water poured in through electrical sockets. The ferocity of Maria’s winds and pounding rains tore away rooflines and paint, and easily toppled 50 foot trees. Storm surge and heavy precipitation hit coastal and interior regions hard. I cannot describe the otherworldly groans and pains of doors and windows struggling to hold on. Then came a deafening calm.

A New Reality: Destruction

We emerged the following morning quiet, passive, overcome by our new reality. Destruction greeted us in every corner. Tree fall, electrical lines, assorted glass, tin, and tiles, even whole sections of homes, littered yards and streets. It would take days to rescue all those souls stranded by flooding. At a distance, denuded hillsides, brown and gray, looked as if they were consumed by fire more than wind and water. Maria reshaped our horizons, and took from us the color of our land. San Juan was spared the very worst. Towns south and west, high and low, are a different story altogether. 

In the days and weeks since, we work to piece our lives back together. Talking heads speak of a new normal, suggesting we have moved on to recovery. This is simply not true for most people. The engines of industry, without electricity, sputter and stop. Companies shed payroll as they work to rebuild. Cash is king, but there is less of it to go around now. Water is mostly back, most of the time, in the city more than the country. Our linemen and first responders are overextended and exhausted, our hospitals and social agencies in crisis. Supply and distribution chains are uneven on good days. In our most secluded areas, people still cross dangerously bloated streams and rivers seeking food and clean water. FEMA and insurance dollars are slow to come, slower to mitigate the worst effects of the storm.

Long Road to Recovery

It will take months and years to recover from Maria. We will rely on ourselves, but that ethic only gets us so far. For the Caribbean’s poor, there is a razor thin margin between subsistence and abject poverty. There are few airports of any size, and no interstate highway systems to speed relief. Generational economic corrections, stifling debt, little or no liquidity, and mosquito borne illnesses already plague our island regions. Saltwater is both a barrier to assistance and a harsh reminder of the scarcity of life-sustaining freshwater. For many, in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the scope of the recent devastation is exacerbated by mental and geographical distance. An enormous humanitarian crisis continues to unfold for nearly 4 million American citizens living here in the Caribbean.

Faculty, staff, and oldest students at Baldwin School of Puerto Rico spent two weeks clearing heavy debris and readying the campus to return to class on October 9. Photo credits: Baldwin School of Puerto Rico

Heartbreak for Schools

I worry most for our children. As of this writing, maybe 15 percent of schools have reopened, serving only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of school-age children in our region. Larger independent schools in metropolitan San Juan, those with greater resources at their disposal, fair far better than smaller ones, and most have resumed operations. A small number of public schools are just beginning to come online. While this makes for positive press, their reality is heartbreaking.

To the extent that continuously evolving governmental reports can be trusted, they estimate that more than 70 percent of our public schools sustained damage during the two hurricanes. In some cases, conditions have made it impossible for on-site damage assessment by the Army Corps of Engineers. More than 150 public schools cannot be reopened. Where buildings stand, classroom furniture and fixtures are damaged or destroyed, the result of flooding that, in some towns, reached as high as 15 feet. Classrooms must be inspected, cleaned, and sanitized. Rodents and infectious diseases complicate recovery efforts; so, too, the absence of running water in certain areas.

In some schools, all books and materials were destroyed. There are few near-term solutions. The administrators with whom we are in regular communication are unsure how many of their teachers will even report back to work given extensive and continuous emigration in the aftermath of the storm. Lost wages and teacher shortages hurt everyone, especially working-class families.

A school is more than a building, and there’s more at risk than lost class time. In the days and weeks following Maria, cellular and data communications were heavily disrupted, and we were largely cut off, one from another, deepening an already growing sense of isolation and vulnerability. In traumatic events of this magnitude, children and adults alike need to collectively process their experiences and share their individual stories. Time spent at school is a healthy and welcome reprieve from the frayed emotions of family members whose patience is all used up. In this sense, school is therapeutic.

A Ray of Hope

Schools represent safety and routine in the lives of both children and adults, especially when safe spaces and daily routines are hard to come by. Since Baldwin reopened October 9, the positive impact has been palpable. Each new day is a homecoming of sorts as our attendance improves. Our teachers are happy to get back to their students and classrooms. Our kids are relieved, especially upperclassmen, that their semester or school year is not lost. They are excited to return to their school and engage their peers, teachers, and studies. Our parents are just as happy and relieved. Ultimately, they need to know that their children are safe before they can fully commit to essential and time-sensitive recovery efforts.

We wish the same for all children and parents throughout the Caribbean. To this end, Baldwin School of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean Association of Independent Schools are fundraising. We are in discussions with Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Education as to how to effectively support those public schools most adversely impacted by the hurricanes. We intend to provide block grants to public and independent schools in Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands to expedite their recovery efforts. We are working to get kids, all kids, back to school sooner than later. Together, our Caribbean schools rise.

For more information on how to support schools in our area, click here.

The playground at Baldwin School was ravaged by Hurricane Maria.

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James Nelligan

James Nelligan is headmaster of Baldwin School of Puerto Rico and the president of the Caribbean Association of Independent Schools.