Hurricane Harvey: First Response Recommendations for Educators And School Health Professionals

(Photo: Texas National Guardsmen rescue a resident by boat during flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Aug. 27, 2017. Army National Guard photo by Lt. Zachary West)

By Denny Taylor

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey Garn Press is once again sending out recommendations developed by Denny Taylor for teachers who become first responders.

At Garn Press we are also taking this opportunity to raise awareness that we, as a society, need to do everything we can to support teachers, as they in turn do everything they can to support children who have experienced traumatic events that impact their health and wellbeing, as well as their academic development.

Here are the first response recommendations, of immediate use with the addition of the advice of Louisiana teachers post Hurricane Katrina in parentheses.   


First Responses in Shelters and Communities  in the Aftermath of Hurricane Harvey

  1. Talking with children and youth and their families, who have experienced a catastrophic event, is an intervention. Just being comfortable with the fact that children are distressed, helps first responders.
  2. Make sure children with special needs are located and that their immediate needs are met. This might include making sure the child receives medical attention (“be prepared to take care of children who are autistic” “and those who are wheelchair bound”).
  3. When there are young children involved, activities that promote a sense of well being include: Playing with children to help distract them; If parents are present holding babies so parents can eat or rest; If there is nothing to do, helping with care giving, just making yourself available, and “being there” with them.
  4. Do not ask children to reveal emotional information, but if they do, listen, (“provide opportunities” “give them crayons”).
  5. Try to focus on their immediate needs by reducing hassles for survivors. If you assist doctors and Red Cross workers in problem solving and logistics (e.g. making telephone calls, replacing personal items, etc.) you are providing a service.
  6. If possible provide personal hygiene items including antibacterial wipes, tissues, lotion, toothbrushes and toothpaste, child and adult diapers, tampons, and pads.

First Responses in Schools in the Aftermath of a Catastrophic Event

  1. Assume that students are doing their absolute best to cope.
  2. Encourage students to engage in self-care.
  3. Help students feel as much in control as they can.
  4. Make sure students with special needs receive assistance (“think about allergies” “peanut butter”).
  5. Don’t assume first responders have taken care of basic needs.
  6. Make sure students have food, clothing and shelter.
  7. Keep parents informed and send letters when possible (“If possible” “Finding ways to communicate is very difficult”).
  8. Teachers should not provide psychological intervention, but simply listen and support students who are in distress.
  9. It is important that students are not asked to tell their stories. Talking about what happened to them and their families can lead to students reliving the catastrophic event and to re-traumatization.
  10. If students talk about the events that have taken place, listen and “be there” for them.
  11. If students focus on the catastrophic event when they write or draw, make sure that they keep their work.
  12. Respect students’ wishes.
  13. Do not make false assurances.
  14. Re-establish basic routines with students (“try to do this as soon as possible”).
  15. Engage students in creative activities. Music and art are important.
  16. Read stories and then more stories.
  17. Suspend all activities that might be stressful.
  18. Test prep and tests should be postponed
  19. Make sure there is time for students to play, have fun, and participate in sports activities. Participating in pleasurable activities is essential for recovery.
  20. Reassure students that with the exception of self-destructive behaviors and emotions, their feelings and reactions are reasonable given the situation. (“We are seeing students who coped after the storm who are now having difficulties”).
  21. If you are concerned about a student, know what to do to triage that student and get them mental or physical health services at your site.
  22. Let an administrator or someone in charge of the relief effort know what needs you have identified, so services can be provided to help meet the needs of your students.
  23. Make sure that every teacher has a list of resources and knows what services are available.
  24. Remember that teachers have also experienced the catastrophic event and need support too.


How the First Response Recommendations Were Developed

I began work on the recommendations following September 11th 2001, and refined the recommendations following my field research in 2003 in regions of armed conflict.

In 2005 the recommendations were revisited following my participation as a first responder in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and in May 2008 teachers in St. Bernard Parish and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana reviewed the recommendations as they reflected on the impact of the storm. Their advice is included in parentheses.

Further insights were added in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in October 2013, which I experienced while living on Long Island, and then in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre of kindergarten, first, and second grade children I posted them again, after a brief time spent in the community following the mass shooting.

In addition to my fieldwork and experiences as a first responder, the recommendations are also derived from psychiatric and medical research on mass trauma, and build on the advice of the National Child Stress Network.[1] Professionals in the medical and public health fields have reviewed the recommendations, and they have also been reviewed by public school teachers and administrators who have been first responders following both natural and human disasters. The response has been that the recommendations fill a gap in teacher-preparedness, and provide both administrators and teachers with the opportunity to develop recovery initiatives in their schools. Thus the recommendations have also been used as a basis for projects in undergraduate and graduate teacher-education courses.

School districts across the U.S. have developed emergency plans to monitor school access and to evacuate schools when necessary. However, few educators receive preparation to be first responders when catastrophes occur.

Recommendations for Educators Responding to Human and Natural Disasters

Nobel laureate, Eric Kandel[2] explains that following extremely stressful events, reminders of the initial trauma often trigger recurrent episodes of fear. He writes, “the memory of the traumatic experience remains powerful for decades and is readily reactivated by a variety of stressful circumstances”.

“How did the Viennese past leave its lasting traces in the nerve cells of my brain?” Kandel asks. “How did terror sear the banging on the door of our apartment into the molecular and cellular fabric of my brain with such permanence that I can relive the experience in vivid visual and emotional detail more than a half century later?”

There is a significant body of medical research which supports the proposition that children who have adverse life experiences can be become more resilient if:

  1. Their families are supported;
  2. Their schools and communities are quickly restored; and
  3. They have the opportunity to regain a sense of hope, through joyful learning experiences.

Exemplary of the medical research which supports this position is the work of the psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk[3] who emphasizes the importance of “establishing safety and competence for children who have experienced complex traumas. He writes:

Complexly traumatized children need to be helped to engage their attention in pursuits that do not remind them of trauma-related triggers and that give them a sense of pleasure and mastery. Safety, predictability, and “fun” are essential for the establishment of the capacity to observe what is going on, put it into a larger context, and initiate physiological and motoric self-regulation.

Before addressing anything else, these children need to be helped how to react differently from their habitual fight/flight/freeze reactions. Only after children develop the capacity to focus on pleasurable activities without becoming disorganized do they have a chance to develop the capacity to play with other children, engage in simple group activities and deal with more complex issues (Emphasis added).

With the very strong caveat that teachers are not therapists, there is much that educators can do to support children and their families and make sure their classrooms are safe places for students to be. To foster resiliency in children it is important that we do everything we can to create schools as safe, joyful, playful places before catastrophic events take place.  If children are to have the maximum opportunity to recover from potentially traumatizing experiences, every effort should be made to:

  1. Establish schools as safe, joyful places for children and teachers;
  2. Ensure that schools are nurturing and fun environments in which play is central to the curriculum;
  3. Recognize the importance of the languages children speak and respect their heritage and national identity;
  4. Promote children’s health and well being by providing them with opportunities to sing, dance and play musical instruments;
  5. Enhance academic learning through literacy activities, art and science projects, and other meaning making practices;
  6. Welcome families and encourage parents and caregivers to actively participate in the life of the school through events that incorporate music, theater, dance, science and literature.

To reestablish schools after a catastrophic event as learning environments that care for the health and wellbeing of children as well as their academic development, there is much that can be done before such events take place. If children are to be prepared for life’s uncertainties, including catastrophes both large and small, they will need much more than the current unhealthy practices to prepare children for so many high stakes tests and digital assessment protocols now mandated and prevalent in our public schools.

The enduring message is that children need schools to be safe joyful places before disasters occur if they are going to have the opportunity to recover after catastrophes take place;

  1. Every effort should be made to recognize the importance of children’s families and friends;
  2. Have a plan, share the plan and stick to the plan;
  3. Build strong communities;
  4. Incorporate health and well being into pedagogical initiatives;
  5. Every attempt should be made to take care of the whole child, every child, and make school a joyful place for children to be.

This is the basis for school and community preparedness for catastrophes. In the aftermath of Katrina, teachers in Louisiana stood outside with umbrellas to welcome children back to schools that put the pressures of unreasonable mandates to one side so that they could take care of every child.

Learning from Teachers who were First Responders in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina     

In Louisiana in May 2008 teachers talked about the importance of making time for teacher support groups. Meetings can be held at lunchtime or after school. Teachers need time to discuss what’s happening and share feelings. These groups should be non-hierarchical and rotate leadership.

The Louisiana teachers emphasized the importance of setting aside time for students to talk. “Morning meetings,” one teacher said, “we roll a dice with happy, sad, embarrassing, scary, and funny on it and children talk if they want to.” They all talked about the importance of helping students find out what had happened to their friends and of reuniting friends whenever possible.

“One catastrophe can lead to another,” a teacher said. She recounted, “A child holding on to a tree with his mother and father was coping okay and then his mother tried to commit suicide.” Other teachers shared similar stories. Three years after Hurricane Katrina tragedies were still occurring. They talked of time. “Catastrophes happen and children might cope but a year later, two years later problems might surface.”

Be Prepared for Responses to Catastrophic Events to Reoccur

The psychiatrist, Anand Pandya[4] provides verification of the experiences of the Louisiana teachers when he speaks of the expectation of “symptoms” during the acute phase of an emergency that become “transient and fluid,” often recurring weeks, months or years after the disaster happened. He spoke of the “let down,” and so did the Louisiana teachers, who also spoke at length about the changes they were observing in their students’ behaviors, as they began to understand that their families, schools and communities would never be the same as they were before Katrina.  One teacher spoke of the way in which she was approaching this problem. “When something is happening in the community I point it out,” she says. “‘Did you see the street signs!’” “‘Did you see the new trees they’ve planted?’”

The Louisiana teachers talked of recovery, of the lack of support from Federal agencies and repeatedly spoke of schools as the center of the recovery effort. “It’s important for schools to have a single point of entry for all services that they need,” one said. “If there was a place in school,” another began. “If schools could have a resource place just like a medical tent,” another continued. “When the school reopened it was the only place parents could eat.” “They came in to use the bathroom.” “It was the only place they could get help.” “We took care of the parents too.” “We are still helping them.”

Trans-System Emergency Preparedness in Schools for Educators and Public Health Providers

John LaCour[5] adds support for the idea of a “single point of entry” for trans-systems services in “Children of the Storm: A Dialogue with Children, Parents and School Staff about the Impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on their Lives and Public Institutions.”

“In most systems,” LaCour writes, “it is clear that parents, teachers, and service providers made heroic efforts to open schools and offer services, often while managing their own traumas of lost and damaged homes, jobs, and family members.”

“Where there were problems, they were often related to systems issues,” LaCour states. “There was a disconnect between school systems and public behavioral providers sometimes because of the loss of capacity to provide services but more often because of a lack of any history of partnership in serving children and their families. There was no plan for healthcare services and no direction or teaching strategy given to faculty with large numbers of displaced students” ( 

Here is abbreviated list of LaCour’s trans-system recommendations:

  1. Have a plan. Share the plan. Follow the plan. Plans can be modified but are difficult to create in the middle of a disaster.
  2. Schools should be central to community solutions. They should be the organizing principle.
  3. Develop easy accessed electronic academic and health records.
  4. Think systematically. Much of the recovery response is contained to single systems (an LEA, a school, a public mental health agency) and does not typically cross-organizational or geographic boundaries, though the scope of the problems extend beyond any of these artificial limitations.
  5. Move toward a public health intervention model. … A public health model suggest that behavioral health agencies would partner with school systems to target services to students and their families most at risk for trauma and initiate services in more natural setting such as within schools. … A successful strategy requires shared responsibility for critical outcomes in terms of health, learning, and social relationships.
  6. Have an effective communication strategy that allows the community to know the plan and will continue to inform them before, during, and after the disaster.
  7. Develop an orientation program for students and families displaced into new school systems to help them understand the curriculum, school culture, and to identify other needs that will impact their school participation (getting students’ medication, transportation issues).
  8. Reopen schools as early as possible but only when teachers have direction and reasonable amounts of needed materials are available.
  9. LEAs should be less committed to getting on schedule with their curriculum.
  10. Develop a single, brief information form that parents and/or students can complete and that is useful for various applications at multiple agencies.   

Trans-System First Response Initiatives When Local, National and Global Crises Occur

Many children born in U.S. have experienced catastrophic events, and many children living in the U.S. have experienced such events in their countries of birth. Thus it is imperative that the divisions between educational and health care professions are removed, and that new appreciations are developed for the relationships between children’s health and wellbeing and their academic development.

Pat Cooper[6] provides an example of such a trans-system school and community based initiatives in the Mississippi McComb School District.

“In short,” Cooper writes, “to ensure the future of our society, we joined with parents and community partners in taking responsibility for the whole child. We believed that academic achievement would come for all children only when we addressed their basic needs. This approach would mean truly leaving no child behind!”

Cooper coordinated a school health model that was based upon the model developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which focused on: health education; physical education; health services; nutrition services; counseling services and psychological services; health promotion for staff; and family and community involvement.

“To bring the circle back to teaching and learning, we added a ninth component,” Cooper writes, “academic opportunity.” (Emphasis added)

The outcomes of Cooper’s coordinated school health and educational plan included: increased attendance; a reduction in disciplinary hearings; a decrease in the dropout rate; and improved academic achievement. And, in the community there was a drop in teenage pregnancy rates and in juvenile crime.

“The common denominators for success have been a focus on common human needs,” Cooper writes, “a coordinated school health program and believing in the community.”

The Take Away in School Preparedness for Catastrophic Events

Children need schools to be safe joyful places before disasters occur if they are going to have the opportunity to recover after catastrophes take place. Trans-system approaches are critical. Every effort should be made to recognize the importance of children’s families and friends.  Have a plan, share the plan and stick to the plan. Build strong communities; incorporate health and well being into pedagogical initiatives. Every attempt should be made to take care of the whole child, every child, and make school a joyful place for children to be. This is the basis for school and community preparedness for catastrophes. 

But just in case there are some reluctant policy makers or education reformers who baulk at the proposition that schools must change because of the high probability of future of catastrophic events, the indisputable fact is that for many children in U.S. society catastrophes are a daily occurrence.

In the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, in an article entitled “In the Best Interests of Society”, William Harris, Alicia Lieberman, and Steven Marans[7] write, and here I am quoting the abstract almost in its entirety because of its critical relevance:

Each year, exposure to violent trauma takes its toll on the development of millions of children. When their trauma goes unaddressed, children are at greater risk for school failure; anxiety and depression and other post-traumatic disorders; alcohol and drug abuse, and, later in life, engaging in violence similar to that to which they were originally exposed. In spite of the serious psychiatric/developmental sequelae of violence exposure, the majority of severely and chronically traumatized children and youth are not found in mental health clinics. Instead, they typically are seen as the ‘trouble-children’ in schools or emerge in the child protective, law enforcement, substance abuse treatment, and criminal justice systems, where the root of their problems in exposure to violence and abuse is typically not identified or addressed. Usually, providers in all of these diverse service systems have not been sufficiently trained to know and identify the traumatic origins of the children’s presenting difficulties and are not sufficiently equipped to assist with their remediation. This multiplicity of traumatic manifestations outside the mental health setting leads to the inescapable conclusion that we are dealing with a supra-clinical problem that can only be resolved by going beyond the child’s individual clinical needs to enlist a range of coordinated services for the child and the family (p. xx).

The research on childhood adverse experiences and intergenerational transmission of adversity provide ample support for the reconsideration of the current high stress corporate education reform environments. Ironically, grit is measured, but no attempts are made to incorporate the scientific evidence or experiential knowledge on establishing creative, dynamic, caring school environments that bolster children’s resilience. 

We must change that.


[2] Kandel, Eric. (2006) In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. N.Y.: W.W, Norton & Company.


[4] Pandya, Anand. (2005). The Psychological Impact of Disaster and Terrorism: Tending to the Hidden Wounds. Medical Society of the State of New York. 

[5] LaCour, John. (2006). Children of the Storm: A Dialogue with Children, Parents, and School Staff about the Impact of Hurricane Katrina and Rita on Their Lives and Public Institutions. Prepared by the Center for Child Development, University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

[6] Cooper, Pat. (2005) A Coordinated School Health Plan. Educational Leadership, September, 32-36.

[7] Harris, William, Lieberman Alicia, & Marans, Steven.(2007)  Journal of  Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines. Mar-Apr;48(3-4):392-411.)

Liked it? Support Garn Press Indie Publishing. Take a second to support Garn Press on Patreon!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share this post with your friends!