Be Someone. Houston!

Under a major freeway overpass on Houston’s I-45, a prominent graffiti sign reads: “Be Someone.” This iconic phrase is encouraging students, teachers and parents in this storm-ravaged City to “Be Someone” to help one another.

Harvey disrupted the lives of thousands of students in public and charter schools in Texas, flooding streets, destroying homes and mercilessly punished the country’s fourth-largest City. Most schools suffered water intrusion underneath doors and through roof vents as Houston saw tropical force winds gusting up to 55 mph and rainwater totaling over 50 inches.

Houston Independent School District (HISD), the largest school district in Texas, saw hundreds of students leave for Austin or Dallas.

As the storm surge started pouring in 50 inches of rainfall, Roy Sprague, AIA, CSI, ALEP, chief operations officer and associate superintendent of Facilities at the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (CFISD), had his mind set on a disaster recovery strategy that he needed to implement as soon as the storm passed through. “We knew this storm would create some unique issues to deal with, and we had to be prepared to respond immediately once it was safe to venture out to visit campuses to perform our damage assessment,” Sprague said.

CFISD saw 87 district campuses and support facilities suffer the storm’s ravages. Most campuses received very minimal water infiltration due to blowing rain water coming in under and around doors and roof vents, as the district had started implementing their Hurricane Preparation plan once the Hurricane entered the Gulf of Mexico and was projected to hit the Texas Gulf Coast. This plan included sand bagging campuses that were prone to previous flooding.

“We were fortunate that we were able to perform these cleanup operations with our in-house custodial staff without having to engage any outside remediation and restoration firms for assistance. This saved our taxpayers significant dollars,” Sprague said.

A very preliminary damage assessment report showed that CFISD had suffered $12- to $14-million in damages. The majority of the damages at CFISD came from one campus, Moore Elementary School, that had two to two-and-one-half-feet of flood water in the entire building and site. “We were unable to reach the campus until the flood waters receded on August 30, which was five days after Harvey started impacting the Houston area. Once we were able to assess the damages, we had to bring in one of our general contractors to perform the remediation services as well as the complete restoration of the entire interior of the school,” Sprague said.

CFISD is still evaluating the scope of work that needs to be performed, and this restoration project could take anywhere from four to eight months depending on the final scope of work. 

And, this is just one school in one district. A clearer picture of the extent of the damage in the state’s largest school district, the Houston Independent School District (HISD), and other smaller school districts will emerge in the days to come.

Very few can predict the gravity of a storm and its impact. “This is hard to understand, as these storms are so unpredictable. Growing up in Puerto Rico, we had to deal with hurricanes often, but you never knew what the outcome would be, as it varies so much depending on the intensity of the storm and the final location of the eye,” said Irene Nigaglioni, AIA, ALEP, LEED-AP, BD + C, a partner at IN2 Architecture, based in Dallas.

According to her, “no city can withstand the amount of water a storm like that can bring, as no city is planned for this type of event.”

Nigaglioni contents that for architects like her to design buildings that can withstand these types of storm surges, “construction types have to change substantially.” “We also have to determine if our priority is structural safety, and in that case, we will need to look at reinforced concrete structures that can withstand flooding.”

Architects should consider material selection that can possibly reduce environmental damage. Nigaglioni mentioned how a team of volunteer school designers and facility planners from the Association for Learning Environments (A4LE) had assisted the rebuilding of schools in St. Bernard Parish in New Orleans after Katrina. “The schools that could be opened first were those that used predominantly masonry materials, and wall finishes like glazed tile or porcelain tile. In areas prone to hurricanes, sheetrock walls should be avoided, as they cannot withstand the effects of hurricanes or the floods that come afterwards.”

She added that considering the intensity of these storms, “we cannot overlook tornadic forces on buildings, and their effects. Other than shelters built to code to withstand tornadic forces, most other buildings will experience damage during a hurricane.”

Meanwhile, at CFISD, Hurricane Preparation plans and Disaster Recovery plans played a significant role in lessening the damages from Harvey. The district started implementing their plan early in the week prior to the storm. They sand bagged numerous campuses and this helped minimize water infiltration into buildings.

Investment in higher-quality facilities and construction standards also helped. CFISD had installed a very high-quality modified bitumen roofing system that withstood Hurricane Ike, a Category 2 storm in 2008, without any roof damage caused by wind uplifting. In newer facilities, the district developed a wall detail that minimized the replacement of damaged drywall due to any water infiltration into the building. This allowed them to perform cleanup operations with their own staff and required fewer repairs. This build-back strategy allowed CFISD to have staff and students return to schools sooner than other local school districts.

Storms like these take a toll on student’s lives. “It is devastating to me to see so many students displaced by storms like Harvey. However, it is an incredibly motivating and uplifting experience to see communities come together to help each other,” Nigaglioni said.

 The human connection and support brought forth by Harvey in areas like Port Aransas and Houston, as well as in Florida, makes her remember the “beauty of humankind and the kindness that we all share. I was able to experience some of this with the amazing folks at St. Bernard Parish Schools after Katrina-Rita, and it is amazing to see it again now. We are resilient, and these events bring us together as a community.”

According to Sprague, Houston area school districts are working together to provide a safe learning environment for all students that were displaced from their homes. “It is important that all our students get back to some level of normalcy, considering the traumatic event we all experienced a few short weeks ago,” he said.

 The Houston Community is second to none and has shown our nation how we all care about our neighbors. “The outpouring of local support from all our residents has been unbelievable and makes me and others so very proud to be called Houstonians. I truly believe this storm has pulled our community together to support each other, and we will be a much better city as a result of the overwhelming support within and outside the state of Texas. We will not experience a lost generation of children with nowhere to go to pursue their education,” Sprague said.

According to Nigaglioni, the Southern Region of A4LE has already started a Harvey Task Force and details are available at

“This group provides free assistance to any school district or educational institution that suffered due to Harvey, Irma or Maria. They are ready to provide assistance with assessment on facilities, as well as provide assistance and advice on filling out FEMA forms. More importantly, this group is passionate about helping in any way possible.”