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La Educación
Número: (115) II
Año: 1993

School Disasters and the Community

Most communities have some resources and plans with which to respond to disaster. In some communities these disaster response tools are formalized and dedicated, and in sufficient quantity. In others, resources may only be made available when disaster strikes.

In nearly every type of human communal habitation there are schools. During disasters, these schools become both a valuable resource as well as a unique challenge to their communities’ disaster response efforts. The uniqueness of schools includes the following key factors:
  • Schools often represent the largest single concentration of their community’s population;
  • The student population typically represents a cross section of the community at large;
  • The school’s staff members, especially the teachers, are seen in high regard. Often, teachers are perceived as leaders, or as individuals with the potential to take on responsibility for other people (at least the students);
  • The school’s teachers represent a broad spectrum of skills which may include chemistry, construction, engineering, water and waste management, agriculture, carpentry, and engine repair;
  • The school facility is a key focal point of either the community at large, or a significant portion of it;
  • The school facility is likely to have resources which could be critical in a disaster. These resources may include the school building, its special features (e.g., cafeteria, gymnasium, washrooms, showers, and many separate rooms), and its internal resources (e.g., tables, chairs, floor mats, carpentry and mechanical tools).
The challenges which schools present to their communities during disaster periods are typically inherent in the points mentioned above. Key among them are the following:
  • The size of the school population dictates immediate action to either minimize the risk, or reduce the consequences of the disaster;
  • The diversity of the student population demands flexible response;
  • The broad representation of the community through the student population often means that even a localized disaster will have wide ranging impact;
  • The student population may include students with various medical conditions and physical or mental limitations. The special needs of each of these individuals may further pressure the disaster response network;
  • Schools in communities with large immigrant population have the added complication of language barriers;
  • Disasters, especially those affecting school children, present an added emotional strain on the community and its response apparatus.