The Road to Disaster Recovery

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Editor’s Note: Teaching Tolerance collaborated with The Learning Network and The New York Times for news accounts and ideas for lessons and curriculum useful when dealing with disasters and ways people can help.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, many families were devastated. Schools were closed for a week or more. Children and adults were stranded.

Some lost vehicles to the surge of the ocean. Some returned from an evacuation to find flattened earth where homes once stood. Many felt helpless, wondering where to turn or even how to help those harder hit.

The lucky ones were merely inconvenienced by power outages that forced relocation and extended waits for petroleum.

Sandy is the latest great tragedy to hit the United States. Educators often deal with the aftermath and are there to help students process feelings, offer resources to parents and maintain normalcy. In short, school is a “safe and good place for kids to be,” said Richard Mansfield, a teacher in Valley Stream, N.Y., who spent the first couple of hours back at school Wednesday talking to his sixth-graders about their fears, what they did and where they went during the storm. “It’s very cathartic to be around friends and teachers.”

Across the country, we’ve weathered horrific storms like Katrina in Louisiana, floods in Iowa, fires in Colorado and tornadoes in Missouri. We’ve survived acts of terror in Oklahoma and on Sept. 11, 2001. And schools and districts have also suffered through the deaths of students through automobile accidents and violence. 

Each time, teachers and schools are called upon to restore a sense of safety for their students. Educators and students rally around each other, banding together to offer support and build community.

After Sandy, the education community’s grass-roots efforts secured supplies for families in need. Students and teachers in other parts of the country coordinated fundraisers and food drives to send to the East Coast. Organizations directed teachers to helpful age-appropriate guidelines and information for talking with students about the hurricane.  

Last week, we asked the Teaching Tolerance community to share its stories and offer advice for dealing with the aftermath of a tragedy. Overwhelmingly, teachers talked about the importance of allowing students to discuss their experiences and the impact of the storm on their lives. They cautioned teachers to stay positive, have patience, look for behavior changes in students, offer students accurate information, make them aware of community resources, discuss disaster preparedness and prevention, and open a safe space for them to ask questions.

Teachers can help the school psychologist or mental health team assess which students might be most traumatized by an event, said Ted Feinberg, a former assistant executive director for the National Association for School Psychologists with four decades’ experience as a school psychologist.

It’s important for teachers to remember that “not every child is traumatized at the same level,” he said. “The process is very fluid.” According to Feinberg, about 20 percent of students will need little or no external support because they have good support in place already. About 60 percent of students will need some support, and the remaining 20 percent will be particularly affected. 

Feinberg said the most common question students will ask is, “Will this happen again?” In this instance, Feinberg said, it’s important to be honest and help students focus on what they can do to prepare and to empower them to understand what they can do. “Children who are prepared and have an opportunity to learn about crisis information have a better opportunity to get through an event,” Feinberg said.

Richard Mansfield, in Valley Stream, designed an activity called My Hurricane Story to help students focus on the positive things they did with their families. Some recounted buying batteries and flashlights. Others talked about staying with a neighbor. But Mansfield’s students also expressed fears stemming from news accounts about looting and gas siphoning. He countered by reminding children these were rare instances and most people were looking for ways to help.

A tragedy is also an opportunity to show children the power a community has to help when tough times come—and even students’ personal power to help. In the Oakwood Heights community of Staten Island, N.Y., one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy, Lee Tennenbaum emailed parents of her kindergartners during the days school was closed, just to check in.

Some did not respond. But when school re-opened last Monday, Tennenbum brought banana muffins she’d baked and encouraged students to share their stories. She passed a teddy bear and as students held the bear, they could talk about their storm experiences. One family was rescued in a rowboat. Others talked about staying with relatives.

Then the afternoon activities “were all about giving and sharing,” Tennenbaum said. She read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, and students talked about ways they could help others. Some wanted to give hugs. Another offered apple juice. They created a visual with all the ideas and hung it on the classroom door, inviting others to share ways they could help.


Kindergarten students in Staten Island created a project to illustrate ways they could help victims of Hurricane Sandy after reading "The Giving Tree." 

The school lobby is also a place people can drop off clothes and other items for family. “We have an incredible community of people,” she said. “It’s going to be a long road to recovery. Donations will be needed in two months when some people have forgotten the devastation.”

When you’ve been through a trauma, iIt’s difficult to forget.  

Patricia Diggins still thinks about a tornado that spun through the Logan-Magnolia Community Schools area in western Iowa. It was 1999, following graduation day ceremonies. Two people died on the way to shelter.

“Whenever a teenager dies, it’s hard,” said Diggins. “They were doing everything right. It was hard to understand.”

Even in their grief, students and teachers went out to clear fields of debris. “If you can do something, it begins to lessen the hurt,” she said. “For the people who lost so much, it gives hope.”

This Iowa district of about 700 students offers hope and help whenever a nearby community is affected. They’ve sandbagged schools and held fundraisers. The district is now talking about ways to help its East Coast neighbors.

There are lessons to be learned from every disaster. The New York Times Learning Network offers additional lessons and information here and here.

Some quick tips on what to do and look for after a tragedy:

  • Talk it through with students.
  • Correct rumors.
  • Realize student may express trauma with stomach aches, headaches, anger, sadness and avoidance.
  • Emphasize safety and discuss what’s being done to keep students safe.
  • Ask students to identify a safe place.
  • Allow students to find ways to help.
  • Make sure students have information for prevention or preparedness.
  • Tap into your counseling or intervention team.

Williamson is associate editor at Teaching Tolerance.