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While Schools Are Closed, N.J. Teachers Provide Support for Young Storm Victims

November 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The town of Belmar was among New Jersey's hardest hit communities in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and a fall nor'easter. With schools still closed, special correspondent John Tulenko tells the story of the teachers coming to the rescue of families by turning their efforts from education to storm relief.

GWEN IFILL: Now a report on the recovery from the superstorm Sandy.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said today he intends to ask the federal government for at least $30 billion in aid. New Jersey is still tallying its losses, and damages in the region are expected to exceed $50 billion.

Schools officially reopened today in one community along the JerseyShore. But, for the past week, teachers have been already hard at work helping students deal with the aftermath of the storms.

Special correspondent John Tulenko of “Learning Matters” filed this story from the town of Belmar.

JOHN TULENKO: Hurricane Sandy tore into Belmar, N.J.

LISA HANNAH, Belmar Elementary School: Belmar was one of the towns you would continually hear about on the radio. Families reported seeing a four-, five-, six-foot wall of water.

JOHN TULENKO: Lisa Hannah is assistant principal at Belmar’s one elementary school. Many of her students are recent immigrants. And most of their families had nowhere else to go.

LISA HANNAH: I don’t think anyone was really prepared for what happened.

JOHN TULENKO: Inside this house, three children and their parents were counting on luck.

LISA HANNAH: They stayed through the storm. And very quickly, the water came up into the room. They started to climb up on furniture. It was dark. There was no power. And water is rapidly rising.

JOHN TULENKO: All communication to the area was lost.

LISA HANNAH: I’m Lisa Hannah.

JOHN TULENKO: It wasn’t until a week later that principal Hannah and a group of teachers were allowed into the hardest-hit neighborhoods.

WOMAN: Got that, Jill? This is getting soggy.

JOHN TULENKO: To check on their students.

WOMAN: How are you doing, honey?

GIRL: Good.

WOMAN: Good. What do you need?

JOHN TULENKO: And warn them of a nor’easter that was coming in fast.

WOMAN: The apartment upstairs he says.

WOMAN: Apartment up here?

LISA HANNAH: There are still a lot of families that don’t have anywhere to go. They’re staying in their homes, even though this is, I believe, day 10 of no power and no heat.

Families have no way to communicate. They may not have extended families that they can go out and say I will stay with. And some of our families don’t have reliable transportation.

WOMAN: How are you to go? Are you OK? We have warm blankets. Do you need more blankets?

WOMAN: I think so.

WOMAN: Is it cold? Here. More blankets. OK?

LISA HANNAH: Today, we tried to get a list of what people needed, so we could go back and drop supplies off if they’re still staying where they are.

WOMAN: OK. So, we need water, milk and bread.

JOHN TULENKO: Visits from their teachers carried special significance for children.

LISA HANNAH: When they see us on their front doorstep knocking and they realize it’s us and we’re here to see if they’re OK, their faces lit up.

WOMAN: We have blankets, three, four blankets. Maybe one more?

LISA HANNAH: In a time like this where kids are scared and you see it in their eyes, the more people they have around them that they are familiar with and that they know care about them can only positively impact them.


WOMAN: Would you like us to come back and get you for lunch today for the kids? We can bring them down for lunch?


WOMAN: OK. About an hour, we will pick you up. So, we will see you at lunchtime. Bye, guys.

WOMAN: Bye, guys.

JOHN TULENKO: The school was open for lunch for the first time since Sandy.

WOMAN: Stay with me. It’s a little wet on the floor.

JOHN TULENKO: The building hadn’t been damaged, but the power was out. About 15 families arrived nonetheless for a free meal and a chance to reconnect with friends.

LISA HANNAH: Kids seek comfort and structure. And we want to restore as much normalcy and routine as possible. A little girl, when we opened up the school for lunch today, she’s walking in the dark because the lights were not on. She said, oh, I’m so happy to be back at school. I feel so safe.

JOHN TULENKO: Hot soup wasn’t the only thing being served.

LISA HANNAH: We just grab baskets of books and let the kids grab books. We try and sneak in if we can a little bit of education.

WOMAN: One Sunday morning, the warm sun came up and pop.

JOHN TULENKO: The lunch was a success for the 50 children who came, but 550 were enrolled here before the storm.

LISA HANNAH: I think there’s a real sense of unknown for us, and I’m sure a real sense of unknown for the students as well.

We will need to have our, you know, our crisis intervention in place and our school counselor and school psychologist. And this is going to be a long ongoing effort.

JOHN TULENKO: But after 10 days in the dark, things started looking up.

WOMAN: The generator. The power is on.

LISA HANNAH: This is good. It’s ahead of schedule. So, that’s a positive sign.

JOHN TULENKO: With power restored, plans could move forward to reopen the school. And that should speed the recovery.

LISA HANNAH: If we’re up, parents can attend to what they need to do. They’re dealing with cleanup of their homes, making calls to insurance companies and FEMA. We have families that have been very significantly impacted and yet are still here.

JOHN TULENKO: As for the family trapped inside their home, the water rising, they lost all their possessions, but not their lives. A boat came by and carried them to safety.

GWEN IFILL: Out of the 550 students in Belmar Elementary, all but 27 were back in school today. School officials are trying to contact and locate those 27 who were not. The teachers were back as well, although many have still not returned to their homes.