By Susan Davis Gryder 2016-11-04 02:50:21
Recovering—and rebuilding—after disaster strikes. MOST OF US FEEL (IRRATIONALLY) CONFIDENT THAT WE WON’T BE THE VICTIM OF MOTHER NATURE’S WRATH. Natural disasters are events that happen to other people in other communities, right? Those earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, fires, blizzards and hurricanes can seem far away on the television news. But so far in 2016, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has declared 86 different disasters in the United States—including Hurricanes Matthew and Hermione, tornados in Montana, severe storms in states as far away from each other as Wisconsin, Iowa, Louisiana, West Virginia and Oregon and fires across the country. The millions who were affected not only suffered a permanent loss of their sense of security, but many will be forever scarred by the loss of homes, property and even loved ones. When a disaster affects a community, schools are usually at the forefront, coping with their own damage, sheltering those who’ve been affected, providing much needed normalcy to students—or some combination of all three. School nutrition services are a critical part of recovery efforts, even when those operations have suffered damage of their own. In the aftermath of chaos, children depend more than ever on the reliability and nutrition of the meals they get at school. In the face of unexpected loss, how do school nutrition operations navigate the recovery process? School Nutrition shares the stories of three directors who recollect how they and their cafertia teams worked to feed students in the wake of catestrope. THE DAY THE EARTH SHOOK You just don’t get big earthquakes in Virginia. At least, that’s what the residents of Mineral, Virginia, thought—until the day in August 2011 when they experienced a 5.8 magnitude earthquake with an epicenter merely five miles outside of town. In the space of just a few minutes, Louisa County Public Schools lost the capacity to serve a whopping 40% of its students, says School Nutrition Director Randy Herman. The findings of an urgent engineering assessment to review the resulting damage and determine the possibility of repair were grim. Both the high school and the largest elementary school were deemed unsafe and needed to be demolished. After a 19-day closure, the school district reopened and resumed classes. The displaced elementary school students were relocated to the district’s only other elementary school, more than tripling that site’s enrollment from 300 to 1,000 students. High school students, including seniors who needed to complete requirements in order to graduate on schedule, were assigned to the district’s middle school. To accommodate everyone, some dramatic—and creative—scheduling was implemented at the secondary level. The length of the school day was extended and students attended on alternate days. “High schoolers attended Monday, Wednesday and Friday and middle schoolers used the building on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” recalls Herman. Herman’s school nutrition operation felt the strain. For example, the crowded elementary school now required continuous lunch shifts, from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. with a staff that had increased from 4 to 10 working in a very tiny space. The POS system had been set up as separate site enrollments, of course, so combining schools meant establishing separate designated serving lines. Herman concedes that she made some mistakes in planning on the fly to determine the extra equipment she would need. “At first I thought I needed more hot and cold holding, in order to have continuous service [at the elementary school].” What she didn’t take into account, she says, was that continual service meant “that our batch cooking went out of the oven and right onto the line. I never needed the holding equipment. It was the epitome of fast cooking!” Once Louisa County’s administration determined that the design and construction of two new buildings would take several years, more long-term solutions were needed for instructional space, as well as for foodservice. The district worked with FEMA on the planning and funding of a modular campus. “At the high school, we put in pods, which were incredible!” says Herman. “From the outside, they looked like a modular city, but from the inside, it was just like a regular school building.” The set-up included a custom-built group of eight trailers used by the school meals operation: Five were used for seating, and three made up the food prep and service areas. The elementary school also employed trailers that were set on the grounds of the existing school and used for instructional periods. Lunch continued to be served in the main building. One trailer was designated for Porta-Johns—when the weather was too cold for children to go outside to use them, the entire school had to close! Herman and her team had to think creatively about how to prepare menus, even within the relative spaciousness of the trailers. “I wanted a portable hood system, one like the military uses. But during our meetings with FEMA, we determined that the expense of it was too great, even for four years of use. They gave me an hour to figure out how to work around this!” Herman recounts. “We ended up preparing all the food for the 1,400 secondary kids at our middle school, transporting it a mile roundtrip and delivering fresh food for breakfast and four separate lunch shifts.” These arrangements presented challenges of their own. “We had to change all of our menus to include foods that can hold in transport,” she remembers. “And this meant we had to have all new HACCP plans to accommodate this.” In addition, she continues, “Since the trailers couldn’t hold the weight of refrigeration machines, we built a modular walk-in refrigerator and freezer outside the building, on a metal platform. Then we had to figure out how to protect the food from bad weather and contamination, and ended up building a canopy over it all.” THE DAY THE WINDS WHIPPED Sudden destruction of property, from homes to schools to businesses, is devastating, but it’s nothing compared to the loss of life. One afternoon in late Spring 2013, an immense EF5 tornado, with estimated wind speeds of 200-210 mph, swept through Moore, Oklahoma. Its path was 17 miles long and 1.3 miles wide. It killed 24 people, including seven children at one of two elementary schools that were completely destroyed. This suburb of Oklahoma City has been hit by 10 tornadoes between 1998 and 2015, including another catastrophic EF5 in 1999. Pam Hart, child nutrition director, Moore Public Schools, will never forget what it was like to find places to house and feed the traumatized students (and their families) from Briarwood and Plaza Towers Elementary Schools, while also processing the impact of the disaster throughout the town. Although she and her team had the summer to decide how to handle foodservice needs for the upcoming school year, that was just one aspect of the scope of the recovery effort. Everyone was personally affected by the losses that the community had sustained. “The impact on the district and on our department was major,” Hart says. “So many of us, including me, had to deal with the strain of our houses being destroyed.” And how do you begin to process the lives that were lost? “All of the children who were lost were at Plaza Towers Elementary, and this was very hard on the cafeteria manager at that school,” shares Hart, adding the heartbreaking news that one of the little boys killed in the storm was the grandson of another cafeteria manager in the district. Eventually, the children from Plaza Towers Elementary were moved onto the campus of Central Junior High, where they were housed in pods. Fortunately, there was a working kitchen at Central Junior High. Still, “We had to change up some of the lunch schedules to accommodate several hundred extra kids,” recounts Hart. Briarwood Elementary students were sent to a neighborhood church, which had lots of space and a kitchen, but still needed significant upgrades to provide instructional and school meal services. For instance, the church buildings had to be wired so that the cafeteria’s POS system (and teachers) could connect with the district’s network. The physical recovery effort was amazingly fast—two new elementary schools opened within one year. “We worked like crazy to get into the new buildings,” Hart recalls. “They asked me to participate in the design process, and I was able to implement some changes and layout plans.” The emotional recovery is an ongoing process, of course. To help ease the grief and honor the dead, says Hart, a tree was planted outside of the child nutrition office with a memorial plaque for Kyle, the grandson of the cafeteria manager, and all the children who were lost. WHEN THE WATERS ROSE Most residents of low-lying Louisiana are no strangers to big storms and rising waters. But just a few months ago, in August 2016, when prolonged rainfall turned into historic flooding in areas around Baton Rouge, people were caught off guard. “We had no idea this storm was coming,” says Nadine Mann, PhD, RD, LDN, administrative director for the child nutrition program at East Baton Rouge Parish School System. “There was massive flooding upstream that spread out, flooding in places where it hadn’t flooded in anyone’s memory. It was unprecedented.” Mann’s district, the second largest in the state, suffered extensive ruin. Eight school buildings were considered uninhabitable after the waters receded, and another 40 buildings saw significant destruction. One hundred buses and numerous other district vehicles, including foodservice transport vans and trucks, were submerged. The list of specific damages to the child nutrition department alone is exhaustive—and exhausting. It’s also mind-boggling. For example, one of Mann’s 10x10 three-door walk-in freezers—a substantial piece of equipment—was moved more than two feet from the wall by flood waters. Reach-in refrigerators toppled over on their sides. Drawers, cabinets, serving wells and other equipment all filled with water—and many weren’t able to drain on their own, standing stagnant. Cafeteria table tops curled and detached from legs. School district staff fared poorly, too, with roughly one-third suffering flooded homes, lost cars and destroyed possessions. “The first step to recovery was handling the garbage,” recounts Mann, noting that the flooding occurred just two days into the new school year, which meant every site was fully stocked with food. “All the schools had food to get rid of, and in eight schools, the water had toppled freezers and fridges, with their doors facing down. We had to get in and right them—this took seven men to do!” Complicating this effort, the flood waters had washed away many of the schools’ dumpsters, so there was no place to discard the rotting food. What’s more, the local garbage company was also struggling with the loss of trucks and the manpower to drive them. It took a full week simply to get through the food disposal. “Then we started with the small equipment that could be washed and sanitized,” Mann says. “The district had an industrial hygienist come in to establish a mold remediation and sanitization process.” To her great dismay, Mann learned that many items, such as tables and chairs, even if they looked fine, had to be replaced due to moisture retention and the danger that mold would grow unseen. Indeed, mold was the biggest concern throughout the district. Nine schools and four administrative centers will require extensive reconstruction. The district started with the low-hanging fruit; they sent 150 workers to gut the schools with the least amount of damage, details Mann. The process included treatment for mold, treatment for termites, drying out enough for new sheetrock and paint, new baseboards, health inspection, etc. Amazingly, Mann reports, the first site was back in operation on October 10, less than three months after the flooding. THE FINANCES OF RECOVERY Most new school construction or renovation is planned carefully and budgeted well in advance. A natural disaster doesn’t give school districts the luxury of time. Throughout the disaster recovery process, financial matters are a constant issue. Louisa County’s Randy Herman says the post-earthquake recovery required intense documentation and a frugal mindset. “With FEMA money, everything had to be documented, and we needed a plan to reutilize everything we purchased,” she notes. Herman counts among her blessings the fact that the school district actually had earthquake insurance. “Whoever wrote the insurance plan, many years ago, put in an earthquake rider. That was amazing!” she says. “So we were able to use the insurance money supplemented by FEMA funds.” She also rescued as much as she could from the destroyed sites. “We removed every piece of equipment that was salvageable from the old buildings—a refrigerator, some ovens, work tables, sinks—and used them in the modular buildings,” Herman details. In addition, she credits the assistance and generosity of industry partners. For example, equipment vendors helped Herman design the temporary kitchens and determine what equipment would work best under the circumstances. When her temporary quarters couldn’t hold an entire week’s worth of food, her distributor provided extra deliveries at no charge. “At the beginning, you have to spend money you haven’t recouped yet,” notes Pam Hart. After the tornado struck, the Moore school district received aid from FEMA, of course, but she recalls feeling especially blessed by the support of her vendors. “Some came in and gave us free equipment, like warmers and combis. Others gave us price cuts. We’ve really seen the goodness in all of this,” she reveals. East Baton Rouge’s Nadine Mann is far from being able to estimate the full extent of the financial impact the August floods will have on her budget. But her tally has begun. Mann incurred total food losses of $93,000, which will have to be replaced out of her budget, along with an estimated equipment loss of $1.5 million. And unexpected hits continue. “I was unable to cancel some orders for produce when the first school’s restart date was pushed back,” she says. “So I had to buy it and turn right around and donate it to the Red Cross feeding center. That was a loss of more than $5,000.” The district has created a separate accounting code for losses, so it can submit these to FEMA. “But I won’t know for months if [our program] will be reimbursed.” CRISIS MANAGED The very nature of unexpected loss is that you don’t see it coming. And it’s difficult to plan for something that may never happen. Nevertheless, there are many good management practices that will help if disaster does strike. For example, all three directors agree that detailed documentation is essential to the recovery process. In the best-case scenario, each district should have detailed records of all equipment—down to the last spoodle—at every school site. This helps in the processing of insurance and FEMA reimbursement claims. School nutrition directors also need to be crisis management leaders with their staff, who are likely coping with their own disruptions at home, in addition to work—and in the wake of situations that range from unnerving to personally devastating. “The earthquake was a scary event for both staff and kids,” recalls Herman. “A lot of my staff had damage to their own homes, and then I had to tell some that they weren’t going back to their old schools, that they had lost their second home.” Ultimately, the recovery process in the district can help the recovery process throughout the community. When cafeteria staff from different schools were thrown together after Moore’s tornado, team members at receiving schools welcomed the displaced. “They were so gracious. They wanted us to feel a part of their school,” recounts Hart. “It was such a tragic situation; everyone felt moved to work together.” It’s at times like these, in the wake of disaster, that school nutrition professionals show their mettle. They find a way to support their students, sustain one another—and plan for the next meal. BONUS WEB CONTENT When You Least Expect It For another story about rising above the damage of a natural disaster, visit our online extras and read the recollections of Lori Shofroth, foodservice director, Tippecanoe School Corporation, Lafayette, Ind. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus to access. Susan Davis Gryder is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md. Photos are courtesy of the three districts profiled in this article.
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