How Disaster Recovery Ignores the Public Education System

Jennifer Santos Ramirez, Research Assistant, Tishman Environment and Design Center

When Hurricane Maria hit a month ago on the island of Puerto Rico causing mass devastation to its infrastructure, loss of electricity and drinkable water, it was quickly recognized that the United States had a humanitarian crisis at hand that would not be easily solved. The U.S. territory has admittedly been exposed to natural disasters for centuries due to island topography, but more so, it has been vulnerable to climate effects in recent times due in part to the island’s financial debt crisis1, which has contributed to insufficient funding for infrastructure and fragile and inadequately supported government programs, including waste management, energy systems, and public health.  But disasters like Hurricane Maria expose so much more than infrastructure vulnerabilities in coastal communities. Low-income communities of color – like the majority of the three million residents represented in Puerto Rico – demonstrate how decades of poverty, inequality and environmental degradation can pile up to create the complete annihilation of an underserved community faced with a severe environmental threat2. These areas are the most vulnerable and least resilient to the effects of climate change (which include the amplified number and voracity of Hurricanes, like Irma and Maria) and have struggled for environmental justice for decades. But one of the effects least discussed in both climate change and disaster relief and recovery, with even greater implications that have yet to be fully researched, is the damage and long-term impacts on public education.

The No-Win Education Choice for Hurricane Victims in Puerto Rico

On October 17th, the Secretary of Education in Puerto Rico, Julia Keleher expressed optimism, that despite the seemingly insurmountable problems the island is currently facing (over 80% of the island’s residents still have no electrical power and over 40% of the island still has no running water),3 schools would be open by October 23rd. In recent days that target has changed, and now the new ambitious target is set for October 30th.  A month ago, most of the island’s 1,113 schools were damaged by the storm beyond repair leaving approximately 350,000 students with no place to learn for the foreseeable future. Even if some schools do reopen by the 30th many will be used for purposes other than learning –190 schools that have already reopened as of this Wednesday are being used as community centers to distribute goods and coordinate services and an additional 99 schools are being used as temporary shelters for families with no homes.4What this does is leave hundreds of thousands of parents with a no-win option for obtaining a public education for their children in the immediate future. On the one hand, parents of young students on the island can stay, help with recovery efforts and wait for some semblance of normal education activities to eventually resume, but that may take months or even longer to occur, especially considering the failing state of the education system before the Hurricane even hit the island. Meanwhile, students will have to suffer through inhabitable conditions that no other child in the United States is forced to endure on the mainland. In Puerto Rico, schools will be considered operational for education activities if they have running water, even if they have no electricity. Anywhere else in the United States, a school with no electricity would be considered a health hazard and detriment to student learning. In Puerto Rico, an open school with some running water and no electricity is a best-case scenario. The other option for parents is to flee the island, give up recovery efforts and go to where the public education offered is more reliable. This is already occurring every day by the thousands, where many Puerto Ricans are fleeing the island and entering the mainland. Over 58,000 Puerto Rican residents have already fled to Florida. The state has enrolled over 2,000 Puerto Rican children to their schools5. Reports have estimated that over 500,000 residents could permanently leave the island in the next few months6. It’s not just parents and students that are leaving the island. Teachers are leaving too. Even before Hurricane Maria, between 1,000 and 4,000 teachers had left in the past three years due to the financial crisis7. Although there are no clear estimates currently, the island is expected to lose thousands of more teachers due to Hurricane Maria.

Disaster Relief Funding Rarely Includes Support to Rebuild the Local Public Education System

One of the biggest considerations to building back any semblance of a normal education system for Puerto Rico is that disaster recovery and relief funds provided by the federal government rarely include additional support for education. There may be some funding for infrastructure and rebuilding of schools, but little or no funding is set aside for additional costs, such as transportation, teacher’s recruitment and pay, administrative services, school supplies and all of those other line items that are needed to ensure that students can adequately learn. On October 12th, Congress approved a $36.5 billion emergency relief package to supply much needed funds to disaster recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida. Unfortunately, most of the money to Puerto Rico was in the form of a loan that the island must eventually repay and the package did not include any money for schools8. Representatives from Florida and other states expecting an influx of new Puerto Rican migrants have already asked that school districts get additional state and federal money to serve displaced children, but those left on the island will not have sufficient representation or political clout to secure the funding needed to get schools fully up and running.Lack of funding for schools is also a problem in private sector disaster recovery funding as well. Well-meaning foundations and public charities that focus on disaster relief rarely include rebuilding or strengthening the existing public education system as a part of their grantmaking portfolio. A quick search of education grants for disaster relief reveals little or no grant opportunities for public schools – apart from an occasional scholarship for displaced victims. With very little private and federal funding, it is left to local officials to bear the brunt of the costs for rebuilding schools. In a city like New York, where Hurricane Sandy devastated coastal communities, rebuilding schools can come more quickly because of the state’s financial security, resources and protections. Displaced children don’t have to go far from their communities to obtain an education. However, in an island like Puerto Rico, already in extreme financial distress, rebuilding schools will take a miracle and displaced children will be hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from the place they call home.


The Center for Disaster Philanthropy has estimated it can take 5 to 10 years for a community affected by a natural disaster to completely recover with adequate funding and a coordination of efforts9. Rebuilding schools is most often considered part of a long-term recovery effort, but this is put aside in the immediate aftermath of a disaster as communities deal with more life-threatening issues. In that time, students affected by disaster fall significantly behind on their learning, which can have cumulatively detrimental effects on education attainment, graduation rates, proficiency, and progress. Whether students stay in disaster communities or flee to a more stable environment they will be far behind their counterparts and need additional support services to resume any sense of normalcy. Unfortunately, disaster relief and recovery services are woefully inadequate when it comes to public education. Both federal and private funding must start to consider public education as a top priority for immediate disaster relief. Education grants should be included in FEMA and other federal aid packages, as well as with private grant-makers, and include all the line items that make a school functional and prepared to admit, enroll and teach students in a disaster community. It should not just focus on rebuilding schools or supplementing displaced students via scholarships. Additionally, funding and research on environmental climate change and justice analytics must also consider the long-term degradation of our public education system in vulnerable communities. We cannot just look at these environmental issues through one lens. Public education is an essential piece in creating resilient communities that can bounce back more swiftly from natural disasters and rally against the devastating effects of climate change.











Jennifer Santos Ramirez is a Ph.D. student in Public and Urban Policy at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy and a Research Assistant at the Tishman Environment and Design Center.

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