Democracy Dies in Darkness

Education

‘A light waiting ahead’: Students displaced by Hurricane Harvey return to their schools, if not their homes

September 11, 2018 at 6:28 PM

Tamira Miller sits after dinner at First United Methodist Church in Humble, Tex., one of the shelters she and her family has used since losing her job in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which struck the state with catastrophic damage in 2017. (Michael Stravato/For The Washington Post)

HOUSTON —The smell of fresh paint lingers in the hallways of C.E. King Middle School. The floors are newly tiled. The choir room, which Hurricane Harvey’s floods turned into a four-foot-deep and moldy swimming pool a year ago, gleams with new carpeting. The library sports a basketball theme, a tribute to the Houston Rockets player whose family foundation helped pay for new furniture and equipment. In his renovated office, Principal Raff Saeed keeps a stack of cards and letters sent by students from out of state.

“As hard as it may be to see beyond the Harvey aftermath,” a girl named Ariel wrote in multicolored hues, “there is a light waiting ahead.”

That light remains still farther away for thousands of southeast Texas students, their lives sundered by the storm, which left death and destruction in its wake a year ago. Harvey — and its record rains — is long gone. But life may never be the same for thousands of children who spent the past school year — and will spend the one that just began — without a home. Their schools have been rebuilt. Their lives have not.

With another monster storm, Hurricane Florence, swirling in the Atlantic Ocean, the plight of schoolchildren in Texas illustrates the enduring consequences wrought by major hurricanes.

Nearly 69,000 students from Houston and surrounding counties displaced by Harvey were still not back in their homes in May, the end of the last school year, according to the Texas Education Agency. Some drifted between shelters or the homes of relatives and family friends. Others hunkered down in motels, trailer parks, campgrounds, cars.

Tamira Miller makes her bed in the classroom where she and her four children sleep on air mattresses at First United Methodist Church. They spend their days at Family Promise, a nonprofit organization. (Michael Stravato/For The Washington Post)

Impoverished school districts were hit hardest. In Aransas County on the pummeled Texas coast, 83 percent of 2,752 students remained out of their storm-ravaged homes. In the Sheldon Independent School District, which is northwest of Houston and includes King Middle, 70 percent of 9,133 students were not in their residences.

Officials won’t know until late next month, when data from all school districts have been compiled, if homeless numbers will be lower this school year. In the Pasadena Independent School District, southeast of Houston, officials estimate the ranks of displaced children will drop from about 12,000 to 8,000 — an improvement, but still far more than before Harvey.

“Of course, you don’t put up affordable housing overnight. . . . In the meantime, there’s no place for these kids to go other than to try to find families to double up with,” said Jeanne Stamp, director of the Texas Homeless Education Office. A lack of affordable housing before the hurricane only exacerbated the misery of those families, she said.

For the poorest of the poor, learning has taken a back seat to surviving.

“When tragedies like that happen, you’re not really thinking about math, science or social studies,” Saeed said. “You’re thinking about, ‘Where am I going to go? Is that a place where I can lay down and sleep?’ ”

A lasting emotional toll

At 5:15 p.m. one recent day, Tamira Miller’s cellphone alarm blares. Time to pack up and leave, again.

Volunteer Jim Demasi helps Taylor Gray, 9, Tamira Miller’s youngest daughter, with her pool game at First United Methodist Church. (Michael Stravato/For The Washington Post)

“Khloe!” she hollers at her 13-year-old daughter, who was lying on the floor of a shelter’s family room, watching videos on her phone. “Khloe, where’s your bag? Start getting ready. It’s 5:15.”

Khloe gets up, grabs her pink bag and rummages through plastic totes where the family keeps their belongings. She packs a change of clothes for the night, as she and her three siblings have done every afternoon.

“Tick tock!” Miller tells her four children, and the family steps out into the hot, humid Texas air in Humble, a suburb of Houston. They pile into their Dodge Journey and drive three miles south to a church, where volunteers feed them dinner. They sleep on air mattresses inside a temporary bedroom. They will drive back to the daytime shelter the next morning, then back to the church in the evening. Next week, it will be a different church.

While school officials say many families have returned to their homes, others have yet to find one. Some, like Miller and her children, have been living a nomadic life since Harvey struck.

Miller said floodwaters swamped the nursing home where she worked, and she was told there’s no longer a job there for her. The family’s landlord evicted them from their three-bedroom home because Miller could no longer afford the $1,400 rent. They couch-surfed with friends and family as Miller hunted for jobs. Now they’re at Family Promise, a nonprofit organization that provides them with food and shelter.

There’s no longer a yard to play in, a bicycle to ride in the neighborhood, friends to play with or summer trips to the beach in Galveston, Tex. Once, the family managed to go to the movies using donated gift cards, Miller said.

“This is not what I expected for us,” Miller said. “You feel guilty that you can’t give your kids what you want [to give them]. . . . That’s my biggest struggle right now, just trying to make sure they’re happy.”

Taylor — Miller’s youngest daughter, who has spent two birthdays at shelters — dreams of being a singer, dancer, teacher, journalist, therapist and director, in that order. But as she sat in the shelter’s family room one afternoon, listening to music on an iPad her mother got free at T-Mobile, she describes what life has become: “A sad story.”

“Before Harvey, we had everything we needed, everything we wanted . . . and loved. And after Harvey, everything was just ruined,” said Taylor, a wide-eyed little girl who loves to read everything, from children’s books — “Junie B. Jones” — to young adult science fiction — “Catching Fire.”

Children react differently to tragedy. Some become angry and emotional. Others become withdrawn, said Ann Davis, a social-emotional support program specialist for Save the Children, a humanitarian organization helping Houston-area children deal with Harvey’s aftermath.

She remembers one student at a Houston school who was lively and friendly before Harvey but has since walled herself off from friends and family.

“She shared that she was very angry because she had lost her bedroom. . . . She felt like she was losing out on something that other people had,” Davis said.

Other students developed new fears.

“We have little kids whose homes flooded in the middle of the night, they’re very fearful when it rained,” said Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, superintendent of the Humble Independent School District, where Miller’s children go to school.

John Bracken, Save the Children’s Texas director, said he has heard similar stories from his staff.

“Mommy, are we going to lose our home again?” kids ask when it rains, according to Bracken.

Miller and her children probably will need counseling, said Carole Brady, director of Family Promise in Humble. For now, her organization focuses on helping the family survive.

Taylor, Miller’s youngest, believes her family’s sad story will have a happy ending.

That ending, said her sister Khloe, is to find a house by their school and “keep it forever.”

Rebuilding continues

Other damage — the physical kind — is more easily repaired.

A year ago, C.E. King Middle School and the high school next door were submerged in four to five feet of water. The Coast Guard rescued people who sought refuge on the second floor, said Saeed, the principal, adding that 90 percent of the rebuilding at his school is done.

The money to pay for repairing Texas schools came largely from insurance, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency providing some aid. At the Humble school system, officials tapped into their rainy-day fund to pay for more than half of the costs, which totaled $100 million, said Celania-Fagen, the superintendent.

At Aransas County’s Rockport-Fulton High School, roofs still need to be replaced, said Principal Scott Rogers.

“We’re a year from the hurricane, and we’re still doing repairs. Auditorium’s not done. Gym’s not done,” Rogers said. “We didn’t know how long it would take us to get back on track . . . but we’ve been moving forward since.”

One rainy afternoon right before school started at C.E. King Middle, about 80 school employees assembled in the newly renovated gym. It was staff picture day, a tradition at the beginning of the school year.

“Let’s go!” Saeed hollered at his staff, who scurried into the gym.

They all wore T-shirts bearing a phrase that Saeed said has become his mantra since Harvey destroyed the school and displaced many students and teachers:

“Education for all, no excuses.”


Kristine Phillips covers national and breaking news for The Washington Post. She previously covered criminal justice, courts and legal affairs at the Indianapolis Star.

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