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Four months after Sandy, education department waits on FEMA

Like many of the New York residents whose homes were hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy, the Department of Education is waiting on the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Before the department can apply for FEMA funds to make repairs at a given Sandy-affected school, or to reimburse the department for funds already expended to carry out repairs, FEMA representatives must first make a site visit to the school.

But in over four months since the hurricane hit, FEMA has visited only eight out of 50 schools.

“We have the money to work on the schools,” Chancellor Dennis Walcott said, referring to the $200 million in emergency capital funds Mayor Bloomberg announced in November would go towards paying for repairs on schools damaged during the hurricane.

But some repairs require FEMA funds to carry out. For example, the department quickly installed temporary boilers in schools whose heating systems were destroyed by the storm, but many of those schools still need permanent boilers.

So far, the Department of Education has spent $110 million and the School Construction Authority has spent $65 million on emergency repairs.

“We have our plans in place to do the necessary work, but it’s a joint operation [with FEMA] because we need to be reimbursed,” Walcott said. “We need to follow their protocol for the proper reimbursement, and we’re going to adhere to that. So our goal is to do it in an expeditious fashion, but at the same time there is a process we have to follow.”

At a City Council Committee on Education hearing on the Department of Education’s response to Hurricane Sandy, city council members congratulated Chancellor Walcott on the departments’ response to the storm and pressed him on when remaining damage caused by the storm will be repaired. Council members asked about specific issues affecting their regions, such as when certain academic and athletic facilities would be restored and when schools could expect new permanent boilers.

The timeline for many of those repairs depends in part on FEMA, said Lorraine Grillo, President and CEO of the School Construction Authority. The timeline also depends on the scope of the work, department spokesperson Erin Hughes said.

The department used emergency capital funds to do what was needed to get Hurricane-affected buildings operational, but it needs FEMA funds to fully restore the buildings.

“So in essence it could be months?” asked Councilman Robert Jackson, who chaired the hearing.

“We hope it will be months,” said Lorraine Grillo, President and CEO of the School Construction Authority, suggesting that it could take much longer for FEMA money to come through.

“We’re in the process of figuring out what FEMA will provide and what it will require as far as documentation,” she said.

Grillo said she expects required documentation to reach “literally three feet of documents for each school.” The School Construction Authority is scheduled to meet with FEMA representatives tomorrow, Grillo and Walcott said.

During the hurricane, 50 school buildings were “severely damaged,” approximately 300 school buses were destroyed, and almost 75,000 students from 61 schools were displaced and in need of relocation, Walcott said today.

All of the damaged school buildings were ready to house students again by Jan. 7, and most schools reopened at their original locations within a month after the storm.

Officials said the physical repairs would solve only one kind of damage Sandy inflicted on city schools. Students still face academic and mental health challenges because of the storm, they said, and new efforts to address those issues are just getting underway.

The Department of Education announced plans today to roll out a series of new programs that will provide long-term support students in the 39 schools hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy. Resources for the new programs will come from the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, a non-profit focused on improving city services through public-private partnerships. The fund has pledged upwards of $2 million in hurricane relief funds.

$715,000 from the Mayor’s Fund will go towards expanding online and afterschool learning options such online regents preparation programs and afterschool time with teachers at 13 iZone schools.

A far larger sum, $1.3 million, from the Mayor’s Fund will go towards expanding counseling and mentoring programs in thirty schools. “As the long-term impact of the storm and a more comprehensive picture of its effect on students’ well-being have emerged, it has become apparent that students need non-academic support,” the department said in a statement.

Red Hook resident Gladys Munez knows that firsthand. She told the council that her son Jonathan was doing well at the beginning of the year, she said, but now he’s struggling to sleep and focus in school. Walls in her fourth-floor apartment came down during the storm, and her bathroom is still destroyed, Munez said.

Jonathan missed about a month of school after the storm, Munez said. Students across the city face similar losses in class time, compounded, for some, by time lost to the bus strike.

Munez said her son’s teachers have told her that he is unresponsive in class and that she first noticed changes when Hurricane Sandy hit.

“When he saw the water coming up, he panicked, and because I panicked, he freaked out even more,” Munez said. “His teachers try to talk to him, but he won’t talk to them.”

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