How Extreme Weather Has Created a Disaster for School Infrastructure

Public school buildings in the U.S. are no match for apocalyptic weather — and little is being done to prepare

Debris in a classroom at Waverly Elementary School in Waverly, Tenn. (Wade Payne for The Washington Post)
29 min

When last summer’s devastating flood put the town of Waverly, Tenn., underwater, Richard Rye was standing on the roof of the junior high school. The junior high school where, if it had not been a Saturday morning, entire classrooms of kids would have been submerged in five feet of water as a rising swell pushed through the building, ripping heavy doors off their hinges and turning hallways into rivers, desks bobbing in the current like paper cups.

Rye, the director of schools for Humphreys County, stood on that roof for hours and watched first neighboring Waverly Elementary and then Waverly Junior High School, buildings that housed 1,100 total students on any given weekday, fill with water. All he could think was: What am I going to do?

The forecast had showed only a few inches of rain. And Waverly, a rural town with a smaller-than-average Walmart, a few fast-food chains, an AutoZone and not much else, wasn’t seen as a cosmic center of extreme weather. On the night before the flood, many people, including Rye, had sat under the Friday night lights cheering on the high school football team, the Tigers. When the Tigers won, the rain had not yet started to fall.

Then, early on the morning of Aug. 21, Rye woke to a text message from the elementary school principal alerting him that Trace Creek, which winds its way through Waverly, had started rising.

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Picture where you are right now and imagine taking 30 or so long steps. That’s the distance from one corner of the school to the water’s edge. That had always worried Rye, especially since the elementary and junior high schools sat in a low-lying area. When he took over as director in July 2020, they had already flooded twice, in 2010 and 2019. Rye had started to build a raised-dirt berm around the buildings in hopes of keeping flooding at bay — the best he could do with limited resources.

By 7:45 a.m. that Saturday, Rye was in his gray Ford Explorer headed to the schools. Within an hour, Rye and a bus mechanic had loaded a truck bed full of sandbags and were beginning to place them around the perimeter of the elementary and junior high buildings. Water lapped around their ankles. A few minutes later, the water was at their knees, then at their waists. The strength of the water threatened Rye’s balance and felt, he remembers, “like a tsunami.” That’s when Rye, along with a few others who were at the campus, opened a supply closet, got a ladder and climbed to the roof.

The flood proved catastrophic, dumping at least 17 inches on the area, damaging more than 600 homes and killing 20 people, including three students: a second-grader, a high school freshman and a high school sophomore. But the gravity of what Rye faced in its aftermath made it worse still. Put the children back in the flood basin? If not that, then where?

It’s a question more school officials will need to answer in the coming years. In January the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report on the impacts of weather and climate disasters on schools, finding that “Over one-half of public school districts [are] in counties that experienced presidentially-declared major disasters from 2017 to 2019. These school districts included over two-thirds of all students across the country.” It’s a big number that is likely not big enough; the country has seen only larger and more widespread climate catastrophes in the years following the report. The year 2020 holds the record for the most “billion-dollar” weather and climate disasters since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information began keeping track. The second highest year was 2021.

In the West, wildfires are turning schools to ash-paste; in the South, floods are the ever-present threat. It’s a threat that is growing larger, yet is often overlooked, especially in rural communities. There, it’s not just hurricanes washing away neighborhoods, but inland flooding, a phenomenon that happens when smaller bodies of water become overwhelmed by increasing precipitation. A 2017 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that nearly 6,500 public schools are in counties at a high risk of flooding, and that number is rapidly multiplying; a study published in Nature in January found that the nation’s flood risk will jump 26 percent in the next three decades.

The country’s public school infrastructure is no match for apocalyptic weather, and little is being done to prepare. Inaction on the part of school boards and administrators has already had negative consequences. The lack of investment and planning around educational facilities has meant that extreme-weather events routinely shutter buildings and keep kids out of school, which disturbs their grades, mental health and stability of their communities. There’s no question that schools are being affected. But how we can make sure they survive?

Destruction from climate disasters is just one of many problems facing public school buildings. In the 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure — data released every four years by the American Society of Civil Engineers — school buildings were given the grade of D-plus. Of the approximately 84,000 public schools in the United States, 4 in 10 don’t have a long-term facility plan, the report states. Over half of public-school districts report the need to upgrade or replace multiple buildings as well as HVAC systems, and more than one-third of public schools have students in portable buildings of which nearly half are in poor or fair condition. A separate report last year warned that “the state of our schools is a national emergency” and found that infrastructure improvements were underfunded by $85 billion.

This is in part because schools are largely funded through local taxes — and raising them is never a popular idea. But it does not speak well for the United States that one of the most unsafe places are the buildings where we send our children every day. “We take schools for granted and just always expect them to be there,” says Jennifer Seydel, executive director of the Green Schools National Network, an organization that provides resources and coaching to schools and school boards that want to become more sustainable. “From school facilities and operations to architects and designers that are working with schools — they are just not thinking about climate events, like flooding, and how it might affect a school.”

And schools are routinely affected. Late last summer, the biblical rains of Hurricane Ida forced the closure of dozens of schools in Louisiana — some of them permanent. The storm swung north and east, flooding a string of schools as far as Pennsylvania. In areas suffocated with wildfire smoke, there are schools without air filtration, and others are getting increasingly hotter without proper air conditioning, which has kept kids out of the classroom in cities from Baltimore to Denver.

“The education sector has not been vocal in its role to address climate change,” says Laura Schifter, a senior fellow at the Aspen Institute, where she leads K12 Climate Action, an initiative to advance climate-friendly practices and policies within schools. “Public schools manage over 2 million acres of land. There’s a huge critical need for schools to be climate resilient as they continue to be disrupted by climate events.”

In the 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure — data released every four years by the American Society of Civil Engineers — school buildings were given the grade of D-plus.

These disruptions mean missed school days, and excessive absences create a cascade of problems for students. You can see it in their grades and test scores: According to one study published in the American Economic Journal in May 2020, students who routinely experienced hotter classroom temperatures had lower PSAT scores than their peers at schools that didn’t experience as many hot days. Researchers found that a large fraction of the disparity may be attributable to differences in school air conditioning and that schools without AC may have been more likely to cancel classes on hot days.

You can see it in their mental health, physical health and general well-being, too. “Any disruption in one’s schooling, as has occurred with the pandemic, which has definite links and parallels to the climate crisis, or with acute disasters … has a direct impact on a child’s development,” says David Pollack, a founding member of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance and professor emeritus for public policy at Oregon Health and Science University.

Emily Diamond, a researcher focused on health inequalities and a professor of clinical psychology at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, Calif., found that children who experienced an extreme weather event were more likely to have future medical conditions severe enough to limit everyday activities. And sitting in classrooms with mold particles post-flood can mean a higher risk for things like asthma and other lifelong conditions that can result from it, she explains. “And all this is happening at a time when what you really hope for is that children fall in love with life,” Diamond says.

The best-case scenario is also an impossible one: Many public school buildings need to be rebuilt, moved or significantly retrofitted. At a minimum, that will take time. Until then, we should at least make sure that students don’t miss so many days because of a climate event, says Kevin Kupietz, a chair of the department of aviation and emergency management at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina.

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The way to do this is through national learn-at-home drills, Kupietz says. Which sounds a lot like remote schooling, except his plan goes further. He doesn’t want to simply create plug-and-play virtual learning; he wants to react to what students need if they can’t be in the classroom. “The idea isn’t just that students are staying home to do their work,” he explains. “It’s really about schools using it as a learning opportunity to determine who had technology problems, what were the administrator issues, who didn’t have access to the materials they needed.” This could look like WiFi parking lots set up by the school so students have access to the Internet and better integration of educational curriculum into storm shelters.

Kupietz acknowledges that it’s “an imperfect solution to an imperfect problem” — we all know the pitfalls of learning from home thanks to the pandemic — but says doing nothing would be worse. “When a student has to stop learning, even for a day, it takes a lot of energy to get that boulder moving again,” he says, with low-income families, minorities and children with disabilities being affected more greatly. “This isn’t just keeping the gaps open that we currently already have in underserved communities; it’s widening them.

By the time I meet Rye in Tennessee in mid-February, six months after the flood, the students have long been back in class. “We know that being out of school is just not good for kids — socially, mentally, there’s a whole list of things,” he says. “For some kids this is the only place they get a decent meal.”

But they are not back in the schools that flooded. Rye walks me through the now-empty buildings, the air aquatic and heavy with the smell of mildew. In a few weeks when it warms up, Rye tells me, the walls will grow fertile with mold. There is a gum of decay on everything, a layer of dirt on the ground, mounds of dried leaves in the basins of water fountains and sticking to still-open lockers. Everything once-waterlogged still sits bloated. At times, the destruction is so severe — blown-out walls, collapsing ceilings — it’s hard to fathom what I’m looking at.

There are black lines on the walls that show how high the water came up. Rye, at nearly 6 feet tall and solidly built, stands next to them; the water would have been at his ears. “If the flood had happened on a Friday, just 24 hours earlier, we would have lost a lot of lives that day: children’s lives, staff lives, the lives of parents who would have tried to get to their children,” he says. The thought snags in his mind at night, keeping him awake.

“That’s why, before I had a funding source, before I even knew what exactly I was going to do, I announced that I would never put kids back in this flood basin,” Rye says. “The school could get another director before I would do it. Parents trust me to take care of their kids when they’re in school. I take that very seriously. The risk is not worth it because there will be another flood. If that happens, and we rebuild in a flood zone, we won’t have any kids left.”

Currently, that means about 1,000 students have been absorbed into other school buildings, including the high school (which also had minor flooding that day) and two farther-away campuses. These are not ideal circumstances, Rye admits: There are kids “stacked on top of each other,” kids learning in closets, classrooms crammed on an auditorium stage. For some kids, bus rides last hours; they leave school at 2:15 p.m., with the last kids getting dropped at home by 5.

By August, Rye hopes to complete renovations on a 79,000-square-foot former boot factory that sits on high ground. It will hold the students of Waverly Elementary and Waverly Junior High until he can secure a piece of land that isn’t in a flood zone and rebuild the two schools. “We’re doing the best we can in a tough situation,” he says. “When your back is against the wall, you do things you didn’t think you could do. It has been a struggle to find a site for the new schools, but we need to do it right. These schools need to last us. They need to be safe.”

There are no borders in the climate crisis: A fire on your neighbor’s hillside means a burning ember on your lawn. A flood in a neighboring town means a wash of problems in yours. Climate change strikes not with a bull’s eye, but with an effect that spreads and metastasizes and permeates, which puts a strain on school buildings in a different way.

This is what I hear on a crisp Friday morning as I stand with a group of parents in the parking lot of the now-abandoned Guideway Elementary in Tabor City, N.C. It’s a rural community some 40 miles inland of the Atlantic Ocean, where there is a family-owned grocery store, a handful of churches, and an RV park and campground that sits next to a winery — but no school. The low-slung brick building that once housed pre-K through fifth grade was shut down by the Columbus County School Board in 2020.

In 2016, Tabor City and the surrounding area were hit by Hurricane Matthew, and then again two years later by Hurricane Florence. Guideway Elementary didn’t flood (although its roof had some water damage), but it sits in a flood-plain county. There doesn’t need to be a major storm for extreme weather to have an impact: Excessive rain alone is enough to cause rivers and tributaries and cypress swamps to swell.

Fair Bluff, a community at the far end of Columbus County, was particularly devastated after the hurricanes. After two weeks underwater, most of the town was destroyed, including almost one-third of the town’s homes. The population fell by half, so even after the floodwaters receded, many businesses never reopened.

There are no borders in the climate crisis: A fire on your neighbor’s hillside means a burning ember on your lawn.

Along Main Street, the innards of a climate ghost town sit suspended in time. The doors of long-gone businesses stand ajar, revealing dust-covered shelves with items still inside. Buildings collapse on themselves and breed snakes. When I ask the cashier at the dollar store if she could point me in the direction of families who have stayed that I might talk to, she tells me she would but just doesn’t know of any.

The exodus there, and in other flood-prone parts of the county, has affected the ability to keep schools open, both in terms of the cost to operate half-empty schools and the loss of a tax base that helps fund them. “Our school district has been impacted by flooding and the hurricanes, especially Fair Bluff,” says Deanne Meadows, superintendent of Columbus County Schools. “Their population declined so significantly that it impacted the student population of schools in that area.”

Meadows tells me that, on average, the county has lost about 100 students a year. It used to have about 6,500 students; in the past decade the number has dropped closer to 5,000. In the next few years, there are plans to close four more — two pre-K-through-eighth-grade schools, as well as one elementary and one middle school — to condense them into two new pre-K-through-eighth-grade schools.

“We didn’t have a lot of population displacement in our school specifically, but we became a victim of it,” says Tony Ransom, whose son and daughter went to Guideway. He did, too, along with his mother and grandmother. When Guideway closed, he said, “it felt like the heart of our community was cut out.”

When a house is gone, one family is affected; when a school is gone, every family in the community is affected. “Physical spaces are our social infrastructure,” says Amy Chester, a managing director of Rebuild by Design, an organization helping local governments build communities that can withstand climate challenges. “A neighborhood school may be where students eat two meals a day, get their exercise by joining a team that meets there on the weekends, and in times of crisis, can turn into a shelter. When a physical space that brought people together is no longer there, neither is the bond that gives community members a way to get to know their neighbors.”

These are some of the stories I heard about Guideway from parents: Once when a family was struggling, teachers showed up at their house with Bojangles chicken to make sure the kids had food to eat. Before holiday break, teachers would give every single student a gift. Teachers would text parents cute things their kids did during the day. With all the violence in schools, no one even thought about it — teachers would have died before they let anything happen to those kids.

“The kind of nurturing environment that students had here cannot be replaced,” says Melanie Glagola, whose son went to kindergarten at Guideway. “He struggled a lot with going to a new school. He was having a really hard time and didn’t want to go to school in the morning. We had to put the child locks on the car door. ... He was freaking out. He would try to take his seat belt off while driving down the road. He would be crying and crying. That never happened at Guideway. He loved going to school every day.”

Ransom’s children, both now in sixth grade, have largely adjusted to their new school, which is about 15 minutes from Guideway, but their grades have gone down. Others are having a harder time, with former Guideway parents telling me they’ve heard of students being bullied at their new school, of kindergartners who have to get on the bus super early in the morning, of parents who took their kids out of school to home-school. The details are unclear, since many families don’t see one another anymore. “I think there were definitely kids that fell through the cracks,” says Glagola. “We know of at least one family that had a lot of problems at home, and it was the teachers at Guideway that cared about them.”

That Guideway closed is one frustration to parents. Where the students were sent is another. Guideway was a storm shelter designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, making it one of the safest places in the community in the event of a hurricane or severe flooding. One of the schools where students go now is in a flood plain. “They are not thinking of future floods in deciding where to put the kids,” Ransom says. “When the next storm comes, I fear something bad is going to happen.”

Adds Glagola: “During the public discussions and school board meetings, the concern about how the other schools flood was something I heard brought up a lot. People would ask, why are you picking to close Guideway, then? I never really heard a response to that.”

In an emailed response to me, Meadows wrote: “We do look at the areas that flood to avoid for actual school sites. We look at where it is believed that growth will occur in the communities when making the decisions. We cannot always predict those events, so it may be tough to use that information.”

Some school administrators are actively working to solve these problems — with progress being made from even five years ago, experts told me. Many pointed me to the gold standard for how schools can adapt to climate change, which is just over 300 miles from Tabor City: Virginia Beach City Public Schools.

A part of Virginia hangs off the East Coast, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, Chesapeake Bay and various waterways — which puts it on the front lines of flooding. “I am worried about the big one,” says Kim Sudderth, a Virginia Beach community organizer for Mothers Out Front, an organization mobilizing parents around the climate crisis. “The big one,” she explains, is a storm system that would drop so much rain on the coastal communities of Virginia Beach that the area doesn’t bounce back. Practically everyone in Virginia Beach knows someone who has lost a car to water damage, she tells me. It’s not uncommon for some students to miss as much as a month of school, including for weather-related issues — like a road that’s impassable due to flooding.

The sustainability officer for the school district is Tim Cole, who’s not the prototypical eco-advocate. He spent 17 years as a Navy SEAL. He didn’t always care about climate change. He didn’t care if his groceries were bagged in plastic.

That changed in 2006. Cole was sitting outside of Baghdad with the sound of gunfire in the background, thinking of all the ways his life had been put in danger: helicopter crashes, parachute malfunctions, being shot at, dragged through the woods by a bear. He realized that the threat his children, and their children, would face is something much bigger. “It really didn’t dawn on me, the impact of all of this stuff,” he explains to me. “I began looking at climate change in terms of how we could solve this big problem. We’re on this rock hurtling through space. It’s like a spaceship that we haven’t done a good job at taking care of … so how are we going to adjust and fix this life-support system?”

“If you go into any area, schools are typically the largest landowner,” says Tim Cole, sustainability officer with Virginia Beach City Public Schools. “It’s critical for schools to lead by example.”

In his role for Virginia Beach public schools, Cole has helped lead the construction of 13 LEED-certified schools, meaning they meet a rigorous set of green design principles, with an additional school under construction and design plans underway for three more. In total, the district has 86 schools, and in February 2009, the school board adopted a policy that requires all new buildings to be designed and built to LEED standards, featuring solar hot water, natural lighting, teaching gardens, outdoor learning spaces and indoor forested zones.

What’s particularly compelling is how the buildings handle storm-water drainage, through cylinder-like chambers buried under parking lots, allowing water to flow into the tanks, where it is released back into the water table. Additionally, rainwater is captured and used to flush toilets. Already the measures have prevented the buildings from flooding over the past few years.

“If you go into any area, schools are typically the largest landowner,” Cole says. “It’s critical for schools to lead by example. You build these buildings, and the community sees what you’re doing. And for students, it becomes a tangible teaching tool.”

As to how he’s been able to get his conservative community onboard, in the book “Trailblazers for Whole School Sustainability: Case Studies of Educators in Action,” which features a piece by Cole, he writes: “You approach it like a special ops guy. Introducing sustainability into an organization is comparable to guerrilla warfare. You are dropped into a hostile environment. You are severely outnumbered and have limited resources as your disposal. So, you begin to recruit allies. You nurture these relationships, and you steadily win hearts and minds through your successes.”

The Virginia Beach district’s successes include reduced asthma rates and respiratory-related illnesses among students due to improved indoor air quality and a decrease in energy consumption by 27 percent, which has saved money. “We’re never going to get where we need to be by approaching this one school at a time,” Cole says. “My goal is to build a model for others to follow.”

Diane Regas, president and chief executive for the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, says there are smaller things a school can do, too. Her organization works to connect people with the outdoors, including through an initiative that works with schools to make playgrounds green and help address issues like flooding. “These schoolyards are solutions hiding in plain sight,” she says. “You can think about this as climate change, but you can also just think of it as a way to make our schools better.” For instance, at a school in Philadelphia that Regas’s program worked with to design playgrounds and a rain garden that would absorb water, the principal told her that suspension rates had dropped to zero following the installations and stayed that way for at least three years. While Regas acknowledges that it is impossible to calculate exactly how much the improvements affected suspension rates, it is possible to see more broadly how climate issues often intersect with racial and socioeconomic ones.

Other easier-to-implement ideas include moving all heating and cooling systems out of basements and into higher floors, as well as creating sunken basketball courts to hold water. Of course, these adaptation strategies focus on floods, but there are an equal number of measures for other extreme weather events. To protect against the effects of wildfires, for instance, schools can create a defensible space around their buildings or install better air filtration systems to deal with smoke.

How this all gets paid for is a knotty question. School funding varies significantly, all the way down to the local level. (The Virginia Beach projects are primarily funded through local taxes. In Waverly, FEMA is covering the cost.)

Some experts believe corporate reparations could help, while others think the federal government should take on a bigger financial role. President Biden’s infrastructure package, signed into law in November, no longer includes schools, but other bills could help, including the Green New Deal for Public Schools introduced by Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York. His proposed investment of $1.4 trillion dollars over 10 years would allow for improvements to existing schools and the reimagining of how future schools are built. “Our kids need to graduate,” says Bowman, a Democrat. “But schools across the country are physically falling apart and are unhealthy and unsafe for kids. It’s on the federal government to make investments in school infrastructure and save us from ourselves.” Garnering support has been slow; the bill has 65 co-sponsors but will need 218 votes to pass.

The expense is worth it, experts say. A 2020 National Institute of Building Sciences report found that for every dollar invested in climate mitigation strategies when building, $13 would be saved.

“The costs will only go up the longer we wait,” says Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at Columbia Business School. “And there are real costs, traumatic costs, in putting this off. The people who are most vulnerable are the kids.”

Rebuilding a school doesn’t just require money — it also takes the knowledge and understanding that it needs to be rebuilt or better adapted to withstand the pressure of climate events in the first place. That requires educating the next generation on the challenges they will face because of climate change.

But that’s not happening. At least, not equally. A 2020 National Center for Science Education study gave nearly half of all states a C or worse when it came to their offering of a comprehensive climate curriculum. (Six received an F: Alabama, Georgia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.) In some districts, educators are using materials offered by the Heartland Institute, an organization that provides textbooks to teachers that cast doubt on climate science.

“Climate change is worsening, but there’s a lot of silence from the education sector,” says Nancy Metzger-Carter, a sustainability curriculum coordinator at Sonoma Academy, a K-12 school in Northern California, and leader of Schools for Climate Action, a youth-led campaign whose mission is to get schools to address climate change. “While there has been progress in the adoption of climate education, only 20 states have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, which I consider the bare-minimum entry point to prepare students for a future which will require a level of systems innovation … never seen before,” Metzger-Carter wrote in an email after our phone call. “Climate change, if it exists in curriculum, is mostly stuck in science classrooms. I also fear the deepening polarization we are seeing play out at school board meetings, which will also impact the momentum for comprehensive climate education.” So far, New Jersey is the only state that has comprehensive, interdisciplinary K-12 climate education standards, she told me.

Lisa Kensler, a professor in educational leadership at Auburn University, whose focus is on teaching school leaders about leading with sustainability in mind and how to integrate these topics into their schools’ teaching practices, tells me: “School infrastructure problems and climate change problems are, at their core, educational challenges.” If we aren’t properly preparing the next generation about the problems of the climate crisis and how to fix them, our buildings will continue to be weak to the challenges of disasters. To borrow a construction metaphor: You can’t build a strong structure on a shaky foundation.

I ask Kensler how many programs are doing work like this. There are some teacher preparation programs, she says. But when it comes to administration-level programs, the types that will train the people who are often responsible for making high-level decisions on public school curriculum, and building design and management, well, “There’s only one: me.”

On my last day in Tennessee’s middle country, as I drive my rental car back to the airport, a flood warning flashes on my phone. The winter rain starts coming down so heavily it’s hard to see the road. I wonder about the water levels of Trace Creek and message Rye.

So far, the creek is bloated but hasn’t breached its banks. But things can change in an ordinary instant. Rye knows this. And so, he writes to me, schools are closed today.

Andrea Stanley is a writer and editor in New York.