After the Storm

You’re standing in front of the ruined shell of your school the day after the tornado came through. The event has forever changed your life. Your mind keeps replaying snippets of 
memory from the day before; the overwhelming pressure on your ears, the shrieking of torn and twisted metal, the screams of terror from students and adults alike, the awesome roar 
that seemed to come from everywhere at once. Fortunately, 
no one was hurt by the devastating storm, but the building 
has been severely damaged. Now you stand before your school and numbly wonder what to do now.

Recovery is a phase of emergency management that often does not receive proper attention. Yet, like the response phase, the time to make plans is not when the incident occurs, but before. There are necessary elements to a recovery plan that should be developed, exercised and corrected prior to being used.

The first priority is life safety and well-being. Before allowing people to reenter the building, consideration must be given that it is now a dangerous place, and no one is allowed entry unless the Incident Commander has cleared them.

People who are allowed to enter should be cautioned against possible physical and emotional trauma associated with reentry. Climbing through debris, and coping with the changes to a building where you have worked can be a very draining experience. Be alert for signs of exhaustion, and take frequent rest breaks. It is important to drink plenty of water and to eat well. People entering the site should wear sturdy boots, leather gloves, a hardhat, eye protection and, where needed, respiratory protection.

Broken glass, masonry and items hanging from the ceiling can pose hazards. Metal-wiring conduit, when stretched, can become as sharp as razor wire. If something looks unsafe, don’t chance it. Have professionals check it out before allowing people to enter.

You should keep in mind the following.
  • Use a battery-operated flashlight to inspect your building. Turn it on outdoors to prevent a spark.
  • Be wary of wildlife and loose pets. 
They may be in a defensive mode.
  • Only use your phone to report a life-threatening injury.
Your insurance company will have companies you can hire for the restoration process, as well as for repair and/or rebuilding. It will be in your best interests to have frequent, regular meetings with the insurance agent, restoration management and school administrators to monitor progress. Make sure that whatever company is retained disposes of debris, especially hazardous debris, properly. Unfortunately, relationships with insurance companies do not always go well, so do not expect them to take care of everything the way you want. In Henryville (Ind.), the school corporation (district) lost two buses owned by a private company to the storm and the insurance company offered them much less than the buses were worth. The meetings mentioned earlier will help keep the lines of communication open.

As an educator, your primary focus is on the students in your care. They are vulnerable to not only the physical danger, but to psychological trauma as well. Therefore your recovery plan should include a system to help them deal with the incident and return to normal. Dr. Sonaya Shepherd, a recovery specialist with Safe Havens International, reminds us, “After a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, traumatic stress reactions can occur. Reactions in children such as regressive behavior, separation anxiety and fatigue may be indicators of emotional trauma and require crisis intervention or sometimes long-term care from a professional.”

A child’s risk of psychological trauma from an incident is normally based upon four risk factors.
Direct exposure to the disaster. This can come from being evacuated, seeing others hurt or from being in fear for their life.
  • The loss or grief of losing family, friends or pets.
Secondary stress from temporary displacement or major life changes.
  • Prior exposure to a disaster or other traumatic event.
Children also take cues from the adults around them. The adults remaining calm and in control during an incident are the best source of support for the children. Angel Perry, a Henryville bus driver, remained calm as she returned to the school ahead of the tornado. Her kids listened to her instructions and survived.

Following a traumatic event, your students may be concerned about it happening again, losing a loved one or being separated from their family and friends. Don’t be dismissive, and don’t lie. Listen to their concerns, and share with them how their school is protecting them. Keep the discussion age-appropriate. Younger children will need less elaboration then older ones. If the child has trouble communicating, have them draw or use other means of expressing their concerns. Draw upon your connection with the child to find the best means of communicating. All schools should have a written mental health recovery plan and this plan should be implemented after any incident.

Educators should encourage their students to talk about what happened and should actively listen. They should answer any questions factually. Give them specific tasks that will get them involved in bringing normalcy back to the school. Re-establish daily routines to bring order back to the chaos of their lives. News stories in the various media can heighten the stress and anxiety, so schools should reduce the exposure to them while at school.

Children are resilient. All they want is for things to get back to normal. As educators, it is up to us to make that happen. This article has been a brief introduction to the recovery phase. It is up to you to dig further and develop a good plan, test it with exercises and correct any deficiencies you find. FEMA has excellent, free resources to assist you. Your state department of education and/or emergency management agency may also provide quality free resources as well.

In 2002, an EF3 tornado struck a middle school located directly behind the elementary school where I was serving my first school administrator position. The tornado then came within 50 yards of my school, tearing off roof ventilators and exposing the children within to the elements. We were out of school for the rest of the week. When the children returned, our staff were lined up outside to greet them. The bright smiles on the faces of the children, and the tears on the faces of the teachers, told us that everything was going to be okay. We had survived the storm and were stronger, and closer, for it. 

Stephen Satterly, Jr. is the director of School Safety and Transportation at the CSC Southern Hancock County in East Central Indiana. He is a survivor of an EF3 tornado on Sept. 20, 2002. He is a certified Indiana School Safety Specialist with more than 75 hours of FEMA training, and is currently working toward a Master’s Certificate in Homeland Security through the School for Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].