On September 9, 2017, Hurricane Irma began its assault on the state of Florida. Although predicted to attack the state’s east coast, those of us on the west coast watched with growing concern as the storm refused to turn on cue and instead slugged its way northwest. The hurricane eventually rumbled up Florida’s west coast and then veered inland and directly over Pasco County and my community, a semi-rural area about 25 miles northeast of Tampa. Although out of power for five days, we were fortunate and incurred no damage to our home. Except for several trees leveled and a yard strewn with branches and other debris, we emerged unscathed. We are grateful.
Thousands of others were forced or chose to leave their homes before the storm arrived. My area includes hundreds of mobile homes, especially at risk from hurricane winds. In addition are many homes in low areas susceptible to flooding, a phenomenon of hurricanes as potentially damaging as the wind. Many of those residents are elderly. Some are patients infirmed in nursing homes. Many are impoverished and have few resources on which to draw.
The primary sources for hurricane shelters are public schools, built to withstand the assault of winds and rain and stocked with generators and emergency food. See an article here on the lack of use of charter schools as shelters during Hurricane Irma. Many unsung heroes help ensure the safety of victims of such natural disasters. Certainly law enforcement and fire rescue officers play a dominant role. A group often overlooked, however, are school personnel who leave their homes and families to command schools established as storm shelters.
This is an argument to apply Furman’s ethic of community (2005) to school leadership during natural disasters such as hurricanes. Through the application of this framework, schools and their leaders emerge as key forces in supporting the community and advancing a vital function of public schools in a democracy.
Starratt (1994, 2012) has advanced a multidimensional ethical framework of care, critique and justice to describe lenses through which school leaders may approach their work. Furman (2005) has expanded his work by proposing an ethic of community. The concept stresses the communal over the individual, the processes of ethical practice, and the values and ethics of the school leaders themselves. She notes that this frame mitigates the impact of the single “heroic” leader (Furman, 2005, p. 222) in favor of a community of school leaders joined to solve the many challenges of public schooling. Furman also suggests that the ethic of community can be used to guide democratic principles and social justice.
Much research on school and community describes the function of a school as a learning community based on the strength of personal relationships (Furman, 2005). Research describing the function of schools regarding hurricanes and other natural disasters has focused on the ways school personnel have served children and families in the weeks and months following the crises. Little information exists on the function of schools and personnel before, during, and immediately after such disasters.
I expand the definition of school leaders to all school personnel. This includes not only school administrators, but also cafeteria and plant managers, their staff, school resource (police) officers, bus drivers, and teachers who may serve the shelters during and after a storm. According to Linda Cobbe, Public Information Office for Pasco County Schools, 22 schools opened as shelters for Hurricane Irma, housing approximately 22,500 people and 1,900 pets. Evacuees included several thousand assisted living residents. Public school bus drivers transported evacuees to and from shelters. Food service personnel fed all evacuees three meals per day, while custodians maintained the facilities and cleaned up afterward. In specific examples, two local middle schools each housed more than 700 evacuees. A colleague told me that her husband, a principal, staffed an elementary school in Tampa with more than 2,000 evacuees.
I argue that the staffing of public schools as shelters extends the moral and ethical work of school leaders in serving their communities. It also shows the vital contributions that public schools make to a democracy. Finally, I believe the use of schools during a natural disaster furthers the work of social justice, in that those served by shelters are often the most vulnerable. I call for school leaders with experience in managing school shelters to share stories of public service, whether they be their own stories or those with whom they have served. Such sharing is an important way to advance the moral imperative of school leadership and to advance the purpose of public schooling within a democracy.
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