Carteret County dodged another crisis this week with the passing of Hurricane Isaias which left the county pretty much unscathed. But the storm’s visit did offer a reminder of what the county, the schools and residents experienced two years ago with Hurricane Florence and the need to be better prepared with storm shelters. Both county commissioners and school board members have taken note of this need and are making plans to provide better facilities in the future if the county will support a $42 million school bond referendum proposed for the November election.
One key element of the referendum is funding for four multipurpose gymnasiums that will also serve as shelters for evacuees from storms or other natural disasters. Three of the facilities are planned for the county’s three high schools and one at White Oak Elementary.
Hurricane Florence was a major learning experience for county school officials and for emergency services. It left thousands of damaged homes and businesses in its wake after its visit to our county on Sept. 15, 2018 forcing hundreds of families to find shelter in a variety of public and private facilities. Just as the storm made landfall the county opened up Newport Middle School for shelter and throughout the 36 hours of the hurricane continued to accept evacuees. But the evacuees were unable to leave the shelter as the storm departed due to the severity of the damage left behind.
Due to a last minute decision to open the middle school, the Salvation Army and county emergency personnel were ill prepared for the large number of evacuees that poured into the facility just as the storm hit. But with grit and innovative effort, relief services were provided. The circumstances did not improve after the storm, in fact they worsened as more people sought shelter due to damages resulting from the historic rainfall of the hurricane.
Although the middle school’s facilities were adequate for the initial need of the shelter they were not designed for long term occupation as was the experience in 2018. And that lesson is being applied to the school bond referendum.
Residents and school administrators recognize that schools are more useful than just to house classrooms. Because of their size and flexible design, school buildings are also used as meeting locations, polling sites during elections and as in the case of the Harkers Island Elementary School, the annual Decoy Festival. And of course school buildings also serve as shelters but only for short periods of time and not for the length that was required of Newport Middle School following Hurricane Florence.
As the county’s population continues to expand, the schools will be stressed to meet increased student participation so the facilities are already in need of improvement. But those demands are more critical as expectations rise for use in such cases as shelters.
The concept of building multi-use gymnasiums that can be turned into shelters easily is a wise use of both facilities and money. Not only will the schools benefit for the initial use of the facilities but should the multi-use facilities have to be converted into shelters, short or long term, it will ease the burden of the schools and their staffs who will have maintain an active school setting at the same time.