Hurricanes, Schools, and the Ethic of Community

Hurricanes, Schools, and the Ethic of Community

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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Mansureh Kebritchi's picture Mansureh Kebritchi | October 11, 2017 9:25 am MST

Great posting Jim, I like how you connect the school leaders and staff’s responses to the hurricane effected communities to their profession ethics.  Surely, I agree that serving the communities affected by the natural disasters is related to the school leaders, teachers, and staff’s moral and ethical characteristics and should be further recognized and celebrated in the field of education/community of educators. 

Mark Johnson's picture Mark Johnson | March 3, 2018 12:50 pm MST

I am just above you in Hernando County. To answer some of the concerrn you raised, Charter schools are not required to meet the same standanrd of construction as traditional public schools and most are not rated  to withstand the winds of a category 3 or 4 hurricane.

In Hernando County, First Responders, the Sheriff, and School personnel all worked toegether to make the community safe. School Buses were used to evacuate people in low lying areas near the Gulf where four wheeled vehicles could not travel with flooding taking place. We had medical and support staff at each of our schols that served as neighborhood shelters. We took in animals and people with disabilities in specific shelters and had to be de-contaiminated after the storm passed. It was a wonderful working of all community partners and governemnts to ensure the safety of residents.

We housed over 5,000 individauls and  some 700 pets. We started with two open schools and ended with 5 serving the populaiton. There was a wonderful presentation at the Florida School Board Assocaition  Conference the summer before on hurricane prepardness. We were well prepared and were fortunate not to suffer any fatalities in our community. You are right the school staff, fire personnel and Deputies went beyond the call of duty to protect those they serve, hats off!


James Lane's picture James Lane | March 3, 2018 1:40 pm MST

Thank you for your insight, Mark.  You mention all groups that wee in the community often take for granted in times of crisis.  One of our research groups is in the beginning stages of a study to inerview school leaders to colect ther prespectives and to analyze ways their service reflected personal and professional ethics.   We are looking forward to talking with these school leaders and sharing the results of our study, which should be complete before hurricane season!