Hundreds of schools in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia were shuttered Friday as communities in the path of Hurricane Michael began to pick up the pieces from one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the United States.
The hurricane made landfall Wednesday in the Florida Panhandle and then ripped through Georgia — where some schools closed earlier this week — North Carolina and Virginia. Officials reported the storm killed at least 15 people, including five in Virginia.
Communities in the Florida Panhandle were hardest hit. High winds stripped buildings from their foundations along the coast, and heavy rains left some communities underwater.
In Florida, eight county school systems remained closed Friday, including Bay District Schools, where recovery was hampered by downed cellphone towers and power outages. The school system includes the tiny town of Mexico Beach, Fla., where aerial footage showed entire blocks of houses had been sheered from their foundations. Several schools served as shelters for families displaced by the storm. At Rutherford High in Panama City, Fla., children and their parents slept in school hallways, taking shelter from the hurricane.
“We do not yet have a timeline for returning to school because we have not been able to complete a damage assessment on our buildings let alone make plans for repairs. Much of the county is still without power and there is little to no cell service in town,” an official posted to the school system’s Facebook page Thursday.
Aerial footage taken by WX Chasing showed that the storm had obliterated the gymnasium at Jinks Middle School in Panama City, blowing out two walls and peeling the metal roof back halfway. The rubble-strewn gym floor glistened with rainwater and championship banners fluttered in the wind.
Jinks Middle School Principal Britt Smith told CNN that the footage was difficult to watch, recalling the basketball games, volleyball games and middle school graduations that took place there.
“It was heart-wrenching, because I know that for our kids and our community, that gym is a hub,” Smith told.
Bay District Superintendent Bill Husfelt said he had little access to communication but sent an encouraging tweet to the community Thursday: “Our hearts are with our community during this devastating time. Please focus on taking care of your families.”
The storm also closed colleges and universities in Florida. Florida A&M University and Florida State University — both are in the capital city, Tallahassee — were closed Tuesday through Friday.
The hurricane also tore through Tyndall Air Force Base, which sits not far from where the storm made landfall. Families living there were evacuated, and public schools on the base were closed. “There is no power, water or sewer service to the base at this time,” the Air Force said in a statement. That includes a family child care center and Tyndall Elementary School, both located on the base.
In North Carolina, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the school system in Union County remained closed Friday after the storm knocked out power in those communities, according to the Charlotte Observer. Four other North Carolina counties have not reopened schools since Hurricane Florence swamped the state in mid-September.
Schools in 21 Virginia counties closed Friday because of flooding and power outages related to the storm, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The spate of school closings comes a year after hurricanes forced the cancellation of classes — sometimes for months — in Houston and Puerto Rico, among the nation’s 10-largest school systems. Dozens of schools were closed permanently in Puerto Rico because of damage or flagging enrollment.
Laura Meckler contributed to this report.