Coping with Natural Disasters: What About School?

Natural disasters include earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, droughts, blizzards, landslides, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and cyclones. Although these disasters can occur anywhere, there are areas that are at greater risk than others. For example, tsunamis are caused by underwater earthquakes, landslides or volcanic eruptions. Natural disasters impact every aspect of life. In the first half of 2017, 4.5 million people left their homes to escape floods, hurricanes earthquakes and typhoons. Like most natural disasters there was massive destruction, many deaths and disruption of everyday life.

Thousands of children were unable to attend school due to destroyed or damaged buildings. Floods and landslides in South Asia destroyed or damaged 18,000 schools that served 1.8 million children. For many children, it could take months or even years before they can return to school.

Save the Children, an organization committed to help children in need, stepped in. They set up temporary spaces to provide children with learning materials and psychosocial support.

Preparing for Natural Disasters

Although natural disasters can’t be prevented, there are things that can be done to lessen their impact. For example, a huge 8.9 magnitude earthquake in Japan destroyed buildings and resulted in a major loss of life. (Earthquakes that are a magnitude of 8 or more can destroy entire communities.) Yet children returned to school a week later because the school buildings were designed to withstand natural disasters.

After the Disaster Hits

Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano

As of this writing (May 2018) Hawaii’s Big island is experiencing a devastating volcanic eruption. The volcano, known as Kilauea, is considered to be the world’s longest erupting volcano. Hot lava, earthquakes, fires and toxic gas are destroying an area near the volcano. Scientists have predicted that more earthquakes and eruptions could last for weeks or months.” Thirty-five structures were destroyed and access to water and electric power is limited. Because of these conditions, it is difficult to predict when the Big Island will get back to “normal.”

Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005, was called “the single most catastrophic natural disaster in the U.S.”  It caused 1,800 deaths and cost about $108 billion.

Children who lived through Katrina are called the “Katrina Generation.”  Five years after the hurricane, 40 percent of them were still moving from place to place and 20 percent are emotionally disturbed. Many kids (possibly tens of thousands) missed school from weeks to years. Unfortunately, today many Katrina Generation children are neither employed nor attend school.

U.S./ Caribbean Hurricanes of 2017: Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria


Raquel Sosa-Gonzalez, principal at Bruce Elementary in Houston, said: “For us, it’s getting the students back to a sense of normalcy, and if there’s anything normal and something structured that they understand, it’s school.”

After Hurricane Harvey hundreds of schools serving about 215,000 students in Texas closed. To catch up on lost time the Houston school district implemented extended school days in11 Houston schools. Many families lost their homes, clothing supplies and school supplies, but by the second week of September most schools were open.

Similarly Hurricane Irma resulted in thousands of schools being closed or used as shelters. Antigua opened its doors for children from Barbuda to attend their schools. In Miami, and southern Florida, schools will reopen in late September. Schools are less likely to be seriously damaged than homes because their structure is generally sturdier.

Hurricane Maria has devastated Puerto Rico. As of this writing it is expected that many school children will be sent to live with relatives in the U.S. mainland and attend school there. This raises some unique issues that schools will have to deal with regarding students, who have limited English skills, are already weeks behind in school because schools were closed after Hurricane Irma, and are experiencing trauma from the storm itself and its aftermath.

How Students can be Helped

Besides returning to school, parents and teachers have to cope with the trauma that students experienced. They may have trouble sleeping, concentrating, and doing school work. Some are afraid to leave home because they fear something will happen to them or their families. The effects of living through a natural disaster can affect a child for years.

Consequently, students will probably not perform as well as usual.  Teachers can accommodate them with shorter lessons, a slower place, and less homework. Schools can provide counseling for distraught students. Teachers can also communicate more frequently with parents about performance and behavior.

On a larger scale, less than 2% of humanitarian aid is used for education. However, the Global Partnership for Education, the U. N. Children’s Fund and Save the Children collaborated on a proposal to increase funding for education to be integrated into their Humanitarian Action Plans.


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