A post-hurricane story: ‘Right now, we just survive’

By GEOFF FOX

Dawn Baker, principal of Temple Christian School in North Fort Myers, Florida, struggled to remain stoic as she gave a tour of her school, which was badly damaged when Hurricane Irma ripped through the area in September.

Temple Christian School Principal Dawn Baker surveys damage from Hurricane Irma in what was once a classroom. She said it is unclear when renovations may be complete. Insurance will not cover all of it and the school must pay for $35,000 deductible.

She had already shown us what was once the library, where there were no shelves or books, just an exposed concrete floor and lots of missing drywall.

The scene, three months after Category 2 winds plowed through the area, was similar in all six classrooms, some of which were used to store the facility’s damaged toilets, sinks and other plumbing items. In some rooms at the private, pre-K-3 through 12 school, smoke alarms hung by wires from ceilings.

At least some drywall in every room was removed with up to five feet of it gone in some areas.

A musty smell permeated the premises.

Because of damage, the school’s front office was moved to a hallway and the staff nursery was moved into a pastor’s office; the school is part of Temple Baptist Church.

Third through 12th graders were being taught at six large tables in the cafeteria.

Outside, two portable toilets used by older students stood near the front entrance, a fence was damaged and a scoreboard across the athletic field lay twisted and crumpled.

“We never dreamed there would be this much damage,” said Baker, who is in her second year as the school’s principal. “We figured we’d be back in business after a few days. We weren’t prepared for the ramifications. It’s been very stressful for everybody.”

Dawn Baker, principal at Temple Christian School in North Fort Myers, helps a student with a math problem. The class was meeting in the school’s cafeteria because of serious damage caused by Hurricane Irma.

Damages to the building were estimated at around $240,000; the school’s deductible is $35,000, and Dawn Baker said she doesn’t know how the school will raise that amount.

Unfortunately, she said, a former church official had removed contents from its insurance policy just before the hurricane hit.

School officials have been working with an insurance company, but it is still not clear how much money the school will have to raise or when the work might be completed.

Of the 105 students at Temple Christian, 51 are on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income families; the program is managed by Step Up For Students.

Despite the number of lower-income families at the school, Baker said some of them have contributed money to the rebuilding efforts.

She paused as she relayed that information and her eyes welled with tears.

“It’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what we need,” she said. ““Right now, we just survive and keep going and keep the students’ needs met.”

The church was built in 1975 and repair work must adhere to stricter, costlier codes.

But the school’s most urgent needs relate to student seating. Thanks to Irma, the school lost all of its cubicle-like work stations where students could work individually and with less disruption.

Baker has found sources that can provide three-paneled desks for $300 each or computer carrels for $100 apiece, but money would remain an issue. Fifty desks at $300 is $15,000, while the carrels would cost $5,000.

Teacher Chet Baker, Dawn Baker’s husband, said he knew there would be big problems when they visited the school after the storm passed.

“The water was up in the back of the building, just gushing through the doors and going everywhere,” he said.

After Irma, school was out for two weeks.

As the Bakers worried about when the school will be renovated and how it will be paid for, teachers and students went about the business of learning.

In a first- and second-grade classroom, teacher Evelyn Kennedy was in the midst of a reading lesson. She pointed to the word knot.

“Do you hear the K? What do we hear instead?” Kennedy asked.

“The N,” several students said in unison.

She then went over the “onk” sound in the word honk, the “unk” in trunk and the Y sound in baby.

When Dawn Baker opened a door to the cafeteria, the din of dozens of third through 12th graders spilled into the hallway.

“This is the struggle, but what do you expect?” she said. “I’m surprised at how much progress I’m still seeing. It’s miraculous to me, because it gets pretty noisy. If I can’t concentrate in here sometimes, how can the kids?”

Amid the noise, high school teacher Jason Yeargin was teaching pre-geometry to eight-graders and Algebra I and II to high school students. Yeargin said his students have adapted well under the unforeseen circumstances.

“We do physical science in the hallway, but there are always a whole bunch of interruptions,” he said. “Students go outside for free time, and you can’t get outside without going through the hallway.”

Despite its challenges, the school is still participating in an annual Toys for Tots Christmas toy drive and working on a small Christmas production to be performed near the holiday. The program will include five carols, ending with “Silent Night.”

Baker was determined to forge on.

There wasn’t much choice.

“We’re trying to keep it simple,” she said, “but even now I’m feeling super overwhelmed.”

Geoff Fox can be reached at GFox@sufs.org.

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