How Much Will The Perfect Disaster Cost?

During 2005, local, state and federal governments planned to spend approximately $30 billion on school construction in the U.S., according to the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities (NCEF). That was before hurricane season changed everything.

In early September, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed or damaged approximately 236 public and private K-12 schools across Louisiana. Storm damage displaced approximately 245,000 students and more than 30,000 school employees, including teachers.

Louisiana was hardest hit. But Mississippi schools suffered significant damage as well. Early reports indicated that 130,000 students had been displaced from Mississippi schools, with 30 school buildings being completely destroyed and hundreds more damaged.

Federal, state and local officials have only just begun to tally up the unprecedented recovery costs imposed by Katrina and Rita. Whatever the numbers turn out to be, the cost of repairing and rebuilding the educational infrastructure will look microscopic compared to the overall cost. Still, the educational tab will be substantial.

More important, perhaps, repairing and rebuilding educational facilities will represent a key to successful overall recovery.“When we talk about rebuilding the Gulf Coast, we are talking about rebuilding more than just a region,” says U.S. Senator from Louisiana Mary L. Landrieu.“We are talking about rebuilding communities, neighborhoods and people’s lives. To do this, it is imperative that we rebuild our education system and schools stronger than ever before.”

How much will it cost to rebuild the education system? According to Donna Hales, a spokesperson for the Mississippi Department of Education, mid-October estimated damage assessments found that schools in more than 100 of the state’s school districts sustained some level of storm damage. Estimates of the cost to repair and rebuild Mississippi’s school facilities totaled more than $321 million.

In Louisiana, costs will likely run much higher. The state’s congressional delegation has estimated that the overall cost of rebuilding the state’s educational system could approach $8 billion, with more than $2 billion going to the repair and construction of school facilities.

How can flood damage cost so much? Observers note that Katrina and Rita caused damage far beyond the problems created by run-of-the-mill hurricanes. In addition to roof repair and structural damage that occurs with any hurricane, problems arise from utterly unexpected sources. For example, construction companies and builders in New Orleans have been wiped out. Only a handful of contractors are available to do the work. Only a couple of those have tools. Tools, as well as buildings, were destroyed by the storms.

At the same time, construction materials, easy enough to find locally before the storms, are no longer available from local businesses. Hauling in wallboard, cement, wood, plastic pipe, steel and other building materials will add substantially to costs.

Then, there is the issue of speed. “In Las Vegas, they are building 100 new schools at the rate of about 12 per year,” says Judy Marks, associate director of the National Clearing House of Educational Facilities. “That’s very fast. But Louisiana and Mississippi have construction needs that go far beyond what Las Vegas is doing. It will be a huge logistics problem. And keep in mind that you have to rebuild houses, shopping centers, office buildings and other infrastructure at the same time. There has never been a problem like this. It is unprecedented.”

Paying for It

Landrieu, a Democrat, and her Republican colleague, Senator David Vitter, have introduced legislation that will, if enacted, provide as much as $250 billion through five years to rebuild the state. Funding for the legislation, formally called Senate Bill 1765, would come in addition to Congressional emergency relief appropriations of $62.3 billion made in the immediate aftermath of the storms.

The bill has elicited criticism from both the conservative and liberal sides of the political spectrum. Fox News dismisses the proposal as pork, while the Washington Post’s editorial page compared the request to the post-Katrina looting that occurred in New Orleans.

According to a September 27 Washington Post editorial: “The Louisiana bill is so preposterous that its authors can’t possibly expect it to pass; it’s just the first round in a process of negotiation…Congress should ignore the Louisiana bill and force itself to think seriously about the sort of reconstruction that makes sense.”

Aides to Senator Landrieu bristle at the suggestion of pork and looting.

“No one ever expected this bill (Senate Bill 1765) to be passed,” says Sally Richardson, a spokesperson for Senator Landrieu. “It wasn’t designed for that. It was designed as a blueprint for how to proceed. The congressional delegation met with thousands of people from Louisiana to develop the bill. The idea is that pieces of this bill will show up in other legislation as it moves through Congress.”

For example, continues Richardson, some of the small business elements in the bill have been incorporated into a piece of legislation related to small business. Similarly, several healthcare elements from the bill have been incorporated into healthcare legislation currently moving through Congress.

As of late October, none of the proposals related to the education system had been approved.

Rebuild It and They Will Come Back

At least some of the controversy over funding the re-construction in Louisiana may stem from a continuing inability to imagine the full scope of the disaster. “It isn’t that homes are underwater; that happens with every hurricane,” wrote Senator Landrieu in response to the Washington Post’s editorial. “It is that an entire region vital to our national energy supply, security and commerce has been devastated.”

How bad was the level of devastation? In the city of New Orleans, it was so bad that all residents were driven out. Now the problem is figuring out how the city can bring back its one-time residents. Similarly, officials must ponder the problem of bringing back residents that fled other jurisdictions. In both cases, school-rebuilding programs will play an important role in the answer.

Families with children of school age are unlikely to return until the New Orleans schools are rebuilt. Just as any family considering a move to a new community evaluates the quality of the schools, displaced New Orleans families will evaluate the quality of the schools in their home areas before returning to the state. If there are no schools or if the schools that are available aren’t any good, they won’t come back.

How can a state move its education system from virtually non-existent to good enough to bring families back?

Rebuilding Advice

Advice about how Louisiana should rebuild its schools is arriving from many sources.

Ideas include schools designed as community learning centers that provide social services beyond education. Community learning centers might share resources such as libraries and athletic facilities with surrounding communities. These centers might also provide continuing education for adults in local communities. They might provide job counseling and employment services.

Others suggest rebuilding Louisiana schools with an eye to the evolving relationships between K-12 schools and two- and four-year colleges. Can K-12 school design and educational programmers improve on today’s model? One idea, for example, proposes designs called early college high schools that combine high school and college. These high schools would be co-located on college campuses.

Still other educational experts are advising that new schools employ the best concepts of sustainable design and energy efficiency.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley has urged education funds earmarked to rebuild Louisiana schools “must not be wasted on constructing schools in the outdated design destroyed by the storm.” Riley’s remarks came in a memorandum sent to members of the House and Senate education and Appropriations Committees. In the memo, Riley goes on to say: “The next supplemental or emergency appropriation should include the necessary funds to help design these schools, with community input, as community learning centers.”

In the end, many observers note that the damage done to Louisiana and Mississippi schools may have a silver lining — the opportunity to makeover school facilities in a region where many school facilities had fallen into disrepair.