Building for a Flood and other Natural Disasters

by Tina Manzer

Ten days after Hurricane Florence hit the North Carolina coast, as this magazine went to press, several schools in the state remain closed. Some still contain water, and mold will be an issue for months to come. As the area continues to recover, school officials are working on a plan to get students back to school in other buildings.

The Carolinas and other states in the South including Texas, Louisiana and Florida,  regularly contend with hurricanes and flooding.

On the West Coast, earthquakes and the possibilities of tsunami are a concern from Washington State to California. In the Midwest, numerous school districts in central Texas, northern Iowa, and from central Kansas and Nebraska east toward western Ohio, are located in what is collectively known as “Tornado Alley.”

Puerto Rico may never recover from Hurricane Maria. In June, seven months after the island was devastated by the violent storm, the government announced it was closing 250 schools. “And though the official reasons were the island’s crippling debt and the exodus of thousands of families, problems that had existed before the hurricane, the final blow had been dealt by Maria,” reports the Miami Herald.

In 2017 alone, there were 59 federal disaster declarations. Flooding and other natural catastrophic events – including wildfires, earthquakes and volcanoes – are becoming a fact of life.

Schools in harm’s way

“With 100,000 public schools, in multiple buildings, spread across multi-acre sites, it is not surprising that America’s public schools find themselves in the path of natural disasters,” says the (Re)Build America’s School Infrastructure Coalition (B.A.S.I.C.).“Our public schools need to keep our children safe, but public school facilities also play a major role in saving the lives of others during disasters, and in helping communities recover afterward.”

B.A.S.I.C. is a broad-based coalition formed in January by a group of nonpartisan organizations. Its charter members – The 21st Century School Fund, The Center for Cities + Schools, The Center for Green Schools @ USGBC, The National Council on School Facilities, International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers (BAC), and Johnson Controls – are pushing for $100 billion of federal investment over the next 10 years to help modernize the nation’s aging public school facilities. They say it will create an estimated 1.8 million American jobs.

“Schools are often central to community emergency/incident management systems, serving as emergency shelter, command and control centers, and centers for aid distribution,” says the B.A.S.I.C. report, Invest in Resilient Public School Infrastructure. “They need to be designed and built to be fully functional – during and in the aftermath of a disaster – to fulfill these major responsibilities.”

What’s needed?

Going forward, new schools designated as emergency shelters and disaster recovery centers should be built to exceed the 2015 International Building Code (ITSC), according to  a 2017 study from the National Institute of Building Sciences, “Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves.”

Facilities experts recommend that existing schools be assessed now for vulnerabilities, and be retrofitted for resiliency using best practices. Schools and communities should develop emergency operations plans.

Post-disaster studies advise reopening schools as quickly as possible to provide stability for students and allow parents to either help with disaster relief or go back to work. “This suggests that schools be given a high priority as communities seek to rebuild,” says B.A.S.I.C.

To accomplish those goals, public school facilities need to be included in any federal infrastructure funding plan, says the coalition. In addition, it recommends that the Department of Homeland Security designate schools as the 17th area of critical infrastructure.

The average American school is now 44 years old, notes B.A.S.IC. Most schools were designed to meet building codes and standards that have become outdated. “Older school facilities are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters,” agrees the 2017 “School Natural Hazard Safety Report” from FEMA. “In most cases, school administrators do not have the financial resources to address these vulnerabilities, [even though they have] a moral, and in many cases, legal responsibility to make these schools more resilient to disaster.”

To find out more about (Re)Build America’s School Infrastructure Coalition, visit

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