Sandy school repairs could top $50M in Nassau

The floor in the small gym of East The floor in the small gym of East Rockaway Jr.-Sr. High School was removed and stacked for disposal. (Nov. 8, 2012) Photo Credit: David Pokress

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Repair costs for public schools hit by superstorm Sandy could exceed $50 million in Nassau County, where flooding was especially severe in South Shore communities, and run into the millions of dollars in Suffolk districts as well.

Tom Rogers, superintendent of Nassau BOCES, gave the dollar estimate for his region Wednesday as dozens of school districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties were tallying damage expenses to apply for federal emergency aid. The filing deadline for assistance, set by the state, is Dec. 17.

Damage varied widely from one district to another, local school administrators said. Along much of Nassau's South Shore, school basements and first floors were flooded with as much as 5 feet of seawater. The surge knocked out electrical and heating systems, warped gym floors, and covered classroom and auditorium seating with muck.

In hard-hit Long Beach, school authorities reported that repairing schools slammed by tidal surges could cost as much as $20 million. The Jericho district's costs, on the other hand, were estimated at about $100,000, largely for removal of downed trees and repair or replacement of broken fences.

"Obviously, the degree of damage to schools differs greatly, and those that were closest to the South Shore experienced far more due to flooding," said Hank Grishman, Jericho's schools chief and a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

Storm damage to schools was much heavier in Nassau than in Suffolk. Two schools in East Rockaway that serve more than 900 students remain closed more than five weeks after Sandy. The district's Rhame Avenue Elementary School is expected to open later this month, but no opening date has been set for East Rockaway Junior-Senior High School. In Long Beach, West Elementary School is not scheduled to reopen to until March at the earliest, and Blackheath School is slated for demolition, a plan that predated the storm.

Many local educators wonder how quickly they'll be reimbursed by federal and state authorities -- and for how much.

"The biggest issue will be cash flow," said David Weiss, Long Beach superintendent. "You don't want to be borrowing."

Some officials pointed to the experience of upstate and Hudson Valley districts where Tropical Storm Irene did most of an estimated $79 million damage to schools, according to the state Education Department. Some districts have only recently received reimbursement for damages caused by the August 2011 storm.

The individual districts' insurance should pay a good portion of repair costs. Typically, federal emergency aid picks up 75 percent of whatever remains, with the other 25 percent split between the state and local districts. In the wake of Irene, the state shouldered the entire 25 percent, but Sandy's costs are projected to run far higher.

John Mills, a regional representative for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Wednesday that funds should be allocated within the next few weeks for "emergency protective services" -- for example, costs of boarding up windows and stacking sandbags.

Processing of requests for more expensive repairs and renovations could take several weeks, Mills said. He could not say precisely when such requests would be approved.

"We understand that schools need help and that is going to be a top priority for us," he said.

The state Education Department recently sent out damage-survey forms, with instructions that school districts should return the forms by Dec. 17. The forms ask for descriptions and estimated costs of destruction to school buildings, grounds, vehicles and other equipment.

Rogers, of Nassau BOCES, predicted a majority of the county's 56 districts would file requests for reimbursement. In contrast, Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES, said filings from districts in his region may be relatively few because the area was less hard-hit than communities to the west.

The contrast in school-damage costs between Nassau and Suffolk was apparent in preliminary estimates issued Nov. 26 by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's office that set the total price tag of storm recovery and prevention at nearly $42 billion. Those estimates, described as conservative, projected that Nassau's school repairs would cost $40 million and Suffolk's would be $2.7 million.

You also may be interested in: