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Educators: LI schools need emergency generators, storm safeguards

Science teacher Ken Ohrtman includes looking at an

Science teacher Ken Ohrtman includes looking at an active hurricane map in his natural hazards class at Connetquot High School in Bohemia. This class of mostly juniors and seniors covers how to be prepared for storms and knowing what to do when one arrives. Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

Long Island’s public schools, after more than $80 million spent on cleanup, repairs and renovations from damage caused by superstorm Sandy, still lack adequate safeguards against flooding and power losses that caused massive disruptions of classes five years ago, educators said.

Veteran school officials who witnessed Sandy’s destruction firsthand said shortages of emergency power generators, as well as inadequate sea walls and other flood controls, leave many schools vulnerable.

Most of the expense of clearing storm debris and restoring schools to their original condition was paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Districts’ insurance also covered a portion.

Sandy’s destructive power was most pronounced in the southwestern corner of Nassau County, according to updated government estimates of school damage costs obtained by Newsday. The hardest-hit districts there included East Rockaway, Freeport, Island Park, Lawrence, Long Beach and Oceanside.

The overall impact of the epic storm, which struck on Oct. 29, 2012, was felt throughout Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Classes were cancelled for more than 450,000 students — most for periods of six to 10 days. Two elementary schools on Nassau’s South Shore were so badly damaged by surging saltwater that they did not reopen until the following September.

While schools now are somewhat better prepared for severe weather, much preventive work remains to be done, school leaders said.

Rosmarie Bovino, superintendent of Island Park schools in southern Nassau, noted that storm-related renovations are continuing in her district, where Sandy inflicted damage totaling more than $11 million. Next summer, the district plans to install new pilings under a section of Francis X. Hegarty Elementary School, which was closed for eight months of the 2012-13 school year because of flooding.

“People don’t realize that five years later, we’re still doing this work,” Bovino said. “That’s why I’m so sympathetic over what’s happened in Houston and Florida and Puerto Rico, and I know how long it’s going to take them.”

Priorities for the region’s school districts include not only structural improvements, but also revamping of curricula with greater emphasis on the impact of global climate change and its effects on weather patterns.

Connetquot High School in Bohemia offers an elective course called “Natural Hazards” that requires students to draw up plans for what they would do if a hurricane or other natural disaster headed their way.

Mary Loesing, the district’s chairwoman for secondary STEM instruction, said the lessons hold special meaning for students whose homes were destroyed or damaged by Sandy.

“Everybody has a story to tell,” said Loesing, who oversees classes in science, technology, engineering and math.

Loesing recently served as an adviser to the state Education Department in the development of new science learning standards covering preschool through 12th grade. The state now is phasing in the guidelines, which include sections on weather and climate change for all grade levels, especially Regents courses in earth science.

Weather issues have special significance for Joyce Thornton Barry, chairwoman of science, research and technology in the Plainview-Old Bethpage district, who also advised the state on the science standards. Barry was flooded out of her Babylon home by Sandy, and she knows of students who worry about being evacuated from their homes whenever they hear of hurricanes forming.

“We all know that it’s easier to learn when it’s something you can relate to,” she said.

The six hardest-hit Nassau districts incurred storm-related costs totaling $71.76 million, according to the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services. An additional 40 districts throughout the county suffered damage totaling $4.97 million.

In Suffolk, 34 districts sustained a combined total of $3.69 million in losses, according to the state security and emergency services agency.

FEMA also provides mitigation money to make schools more weather-resistant — for example, by installing storm doors to protect boilers and other vulnerable equipment from water damage.

Renovation work in Long Beach has included elevating boilers in two schools to prevent future inundation by floodwaters.

Michael DeVito, the district’s chief operating officer, is among the local educators who believe Long Island’s schools have made significant progress in emergency planning and preparations.

“I think we’re better equipped to withstand any future storm without incurring significant damage,” DeVito said.

Many experts regard purchases of heavy-duty electrical generators as a high priority — if only money could be found to pay for them. FEMA does not normally pay for such costs.

Proponents note that standby generators can be used during emergencies to keep lights and heat working, allowing schools to serve as temporary shelters.

Peter LaDuca, executive manager of health and safety training and information service at Nassau County BOCES, said most of the 330 school buildings in Nassau lack such equipment.

“I would love to see emergency generators for all our school districts,” said LaDuca, who helped coordinate recovery efforts in 2012. “Anytime anything like that happens, it is a wake-up call.”

Generators capable of powering entire school buildings carry price tags in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, along with additional thousands for annual maintenance.

David Flatley, superintendent of Carle Place schools, said his district purchased generators nine years ago and is glad it did so. Flatley added, however, that state tax caps imposed on districts in more recent years make such investments more difficult.

“We need to strike a balance between our expenditures on instructional programs and our expenditures for hardening buildings against a disaster,” said Flatley, who serves as president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents.

In East Rockaway, school officials are negotiating with the state in the hope of raising money to extend and heighten an 1,800-foot bulkhead — similar to a sea wall — along a riverbank behind the district’s high school.

Superintendent Lisa Ruiz said a stronger bulkhead could prevent a repeat of what happened in 2012, when the school was flooded with 4 feet of water and sandy muck. FEMA estimated total damage recovery costs at $15.96 million for the district.

Ruiz added that storm-related construction in her district is not limited to schools. A half-dozen local families with school-age children still are repairing their homes, she noted.

“You’d think after five years, everybody would be back,” Ruiz said. “But some of our families are not, and it’s a challenge for them.”

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