PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Regina Ferrell, a fourth-grade teacher in Bay County, stood before the local school board this week and pleaded: Please be flexible with teachers returning to classrooms after Hurricane Michael.
The board wants to reopen the county’s schools — the ones that weren’t destroyed — on Monday, with students returning two weeks later. But teachers like Ferrell say that could be difficult when their living situations are so tenuous.
“Monday’s awfully quick when so many of us are suffering,” said Ferrell, who lives in Panama City, the hardest-hit area. After she spoke to the board, two people in the audience pressed cash into her hands. Tears welled in her eyes.
The hurricane severely damaged her condo, leaving her without water, sewer service or electricity. Except for one night that she slept in a tent in the parking lot, she has stayed in her water-damaged unit. The inside is stacked with food and other necessities in plastic tubs, and some of her possessions are stuffed into black trash bags.
Mold has begun to grow inside the condo. A sour, dank smell permeates the place. Still, she is reluctant to shut the door and go somewhere else.
“What little I do have, I’m worried somebody’s going to steal it,” she said, adding that she spends nights with a flashlight and a 9 mm gun at her side.
Reopening schools in the Florida district hit hardest by the hurricane Oct. 10 depends a lot on achieving some degree of normalcy outside the classroom for the 28,000 students and the 1,800 teachers and other employees.
The Category 4 storm slammed Bay County two weeks ago with winds of 155 mph (250 kph). Since then, some teachers whose homes were destroyed have spent nights in their own classrooms or slept in tents and cars. All 36 of the district’s schools were damaged; six are unusable.
“We have a delicate balance between the humanitarian needs and the need to open schools in order to show our community that normal will exist again,” said district spokeswoman Sharon Michalik. “We have teachers who have lost everything and they are camping out in their classrooms. We’ll have to find them somewhere else to live.”
Michalik said some possibilities under discussion are tent cities for district employees and on-site day care for their children.
“We are meeting every day with community leaders to try to identify options,” she said, adding that she has heard estimates of some 20,000 homes in the area that need to be replaced. “The needs are many and varied and never-ending.”
Denise Hinson’s home was one of the few in her mobile home park that didn’t have extensive damage. But there’s no electricity, making it hard to live there and even more difficult to create lesson plans and grade papers. Toppled trees make it impossible to reach her home by car.
Since the hurricane, she has been living in a hotel with her mother in Ocala, Florida, about four hours away, paying $80 a night. Many of the hotels in the Panama City area were damaged and left uninhabitable, and the few that are left are fully booked by displaced residents, utility crews, Federal Emergency Management Agency representatives and other recovery workers.
Hinson also worries about her students, many of whom live in poverty or are in foster care.
Hinson, who has taught for 31 years, said she is in a tough spot: She needs the money that returning to school will deliver since she hasn’t yet received disaster assistance. But if she doesn’t go back on Monday, she said, she will have to take unpaid leave.
“I don’t have a home, so how can I be effective at my work when I can’t shower or cook food?” said Hinson, who teaches seventh-graders language arts at New Horizons Learning Center. “Maybe I will live at the school? I don’t have anything else to do.”
And then there is the trauma, damage and displacement suffered by students and their families.
Sixteen-year-old Kassie Pigman’s home was OK, and she is ready to return to class, but her school, Panama City Marina Institute, was heavily damaged.
“I don’t have a school to go to,” she said. “It sucks.”
On Friday at Panama City’s Lucille Moore Elementary, the spot where fifth-graders normally wait in the carpool line was covered with pallets of bottled water that volunteers were handing out. The school’s lawn had been torn up by a forklift. The rifles of National Guard troops who were assisting leaned against the school.
District officials are surveying teachers and staff to determine how many will be returning to their jobs. Michalik said they won’t know how many students will be returning until the day classes resume.