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La Educación
Número: (115) II
Año: 1993

Effects of Disasters on Schools

School facilities, personnel, and operations may all be affected by disasters. These effects may include: partial damage, major destruction and contamination of the school facility; injury to or death of students and staff members; and significant delays or complications in the schools’ ability to continue to fulfil their roles.

Effects on the Facilities

In some instances school facilities may appear to be undamaged but remain unavailable. This may occur due to the contamination of the school by sewage or chemicals, or the disruption of critical utility services.

Schools which remain unaffected by a disaster may be utilized by people other than their own staff members and for purposes other than those originally intended. The school buildings may become command posts, reception areas, evacuation centers, or rest areas for weary rescue teams. Schools may also become substitutes for damaged hospitals, morgues, care facilities, or government offices.

Furthermore, given a perceived need by the community’s disaster response organizations for a school building, it may be converted to other uses for however long it is required. In such cases, the educational value and operation of the school will likely take second seat to the more immediate requirement of the disaster response operation.

Effects on School Personnel

Disasters will most likely have a lasting effect on staff members, students, and their respective family members. They may be influenced by the disaster in an economic and physical sense. Some may be injured by it, others may die or lose loved ones. Above all, everyone will be emotionally affected and traumatized by the disaster (Raphael 1986).

Emotional trauma will likely be the longest lasting impact of the disaster. Raphael (1986) observed that no one who experiences a disaster, even as a “rescuer,” is left untouched by the event. She related cases where children who experienced bush fires in Australia reacted emotionally and physically to the sound of fire trucks nearly eight months after the event. She noted that regardless of the direct impact of a disaster on a school, children from the area will be particularly apprehensive and concerned about the event, its potential recurrence, and other related issues.

Following a disaster, particularly during the reconstruction phase, there is a common tendency to forget or ignore the fact that disaster-related emotional trauma does exist. For those affected by it, such trauma may last for lengthy periods. However, it may easily be overshadowed by the euphoria brought on by rejuvenation of the school’s or the community’s previously damaged infrastructure.

Consider, for example, the effect of a low-level disaster where a school bus accident results in the death of all occupants. As school administrators ask yourselves: “What would happen if this occurred at my school?” Now consider a high-level disaster, such as the devastation of your school by a tornado or earthquake. Suddenly the term “disaster preparedness” has a whole new meaning and much greater significance.

In addition to being victimized by the disaster, students and staff members may also be directly involved in disaster response and recovery activities. These individuals may perform a number of valuable services such as: helping with rescue and first aid activities; providing emotional support and comfort for the injured, lost, and lonely; helping transport much needed resources; assisting in communication and clerical tasks; and providing assistance wherever it may otherwise be needed.

Beare (1980) described the response efforts to Cyclone Tracy which hit Darwin, Australia, on Christmas Eve, 1974. He told of the bold and valuable effort of Darwin’s teachers during the initial phase of disaster response. Their actions should serve as a model of the potential of school personnel in response to disasters.

Impact of Disaster on Organizations

The literature which now exists on the effects of disasters on individuals and organizations is extensive and rapidly growing (Drabek and Hoetmer 1991). It illustrates a number of predictable occurrences regardless of the nature of the disaster, the type of organization involved, or the geographical and cultural settings.

One of the initial and significant outcomes of a disaster is that of convergence (Auf der heide 1989; Drabek 1986; Dynes 1970). Upon the impact of a disaster, school administrators could expect an almost immediate convergence of students, staff members, school board officials, parents, concerned citizens, members of municipal and volunteer agencies, and the media (LaValla, Stoffel, and Erwin 1991).

Predictably, the more immense the disaster and the media coverage of it, the greater the number of external agencies that will converge on the school. These may include fire, police, rescue personnel, social services, health professional and officials, municipal and government representatives, and various volunteer organizations.

The convergence of people also precipitates an influx of resources which can be more a hindrance than a help. Sometimes, these additional and unsolicited resources may clutter the school facility both inside and outside, and hamper school officials’ ability to control the site and its contents.

When a disaster affects the community at large, authority and jurisdiction are of prime concern. Should a disaster strike while the children are at school, school administrators would have to address a number of key questions such as:
  • Should the school children be kept indoors or be let out to the school yard?
  • When should they be sent home, recognizing that some parents may be missing or hurt?
  • How are parents to be notified of their children’s whereabouts in cases of injuries or mass evacuation?
  • Who has overall jurisdiction over the school facility and resources during a situation which is declared a “disaster”?
  • Who is the person responsible for the school’s or school division’s disaster preparedness and response efforts?
  • How can the school access community resources, and who are the primary contacts?
  • Who could talk to the media and what can be said?
A key difficulty for an organization affected by a community disaster is the maintenance of its authority and structure despite the effects of the disaster. Typically, at the onset of disasters, organizations suffer from organizational disorientation coupled with the bypassing of traditional communication and authority networks. Depending on the magnitude of the disaster, organizations (including schools) may also lose some of their authority to municipal, provincial/state, or federal/national governments. In such circumstances, school administrators may have little say about who uses their school facility, for what purpose, or for how long.

The devastation and disruptiveness of disasters are further complicated by the confusion which is often due to a shortage of relevant information. A number of key questions frequently remain unanswered in the period immediately following the disaster’s impact. These include: “What exactly has taken place?”, “What are the immediate and future ramifications to the school?”, and “What are the required remedial actions?”

The greater the disaster, the greater the convergence of information, people, and resources, and the greater the loss of control by the school’s administration. Similarly, greater is the likelihood that the school will be placed in a reactive versus proactive operational mode. To minimize this effect, school administrators must become team players in their community’s pre-disaster planning and preparedness. Administrators who do so will be better able to contribute to, and assist with, organized response efforts.

Communication is an important component of disaster response. School administrators may be confronted by concerned and irate parents, staff members, students, senior school administrators, government officials, foreign interest groups, and media personnel. The media’s representatives alone could instantly elevate the disaster affecting the school into a national and even international event. This public attention, and the manner in which school officials respond to it, have the potential to significantly alter the image of the school, the school system, and the community.