- October 6, 2022
Ellie Connours, a fifth grader at Myakka City Elementary School, was somewhat relieved to be back at school Oct. 10, but her mind was on her mother back home.
A week and a half after Hurricane Ian ravaged the Myakka City area, Connours’ mother, Sarah Connours, was at home alone taking care of 40 animals and continuing repairs to their damaged home, which still didn’t have power as of Oct. 11.
Connours, along with other students, tried to feel a sense of normalcy after the hurricane shook up their world. The school has been working to support any students or staff members who experienced trauma during Hurricane Ian and its aftermath.
Connours spent the hurricane worrying about her family's horses, who had been relocated to neighboring homes that were on higher ground. When she woke up Sept. 29, her pasture already had some flooding, and the horse trailer had tipped over and had a broken awning.
The family spent Sept. 29 bringing back their horses only to find out more danger was on the way.
At 2 a.m. Sept. 30, her family woke up to banging on the front door from Manatee County Sheriff’s deputies followed by a Coast Guard helicopter light shining around the home.
The floodwaters were approaching their home.
“It was pretty scary because both of my sisters were freaking out,” Connours said. “They didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to do. All I knew was we had to get our (horses) and us out as soon as possible.”
A boat was used to rescue their horses, goats and other animals from the floodwaters.
When students returned to school Oct. 10, teachers had conversations with their classes about what they all had experienced and what their families might still be going through.
Smith said it was a reminder to all the students that they weren’t alone.
Mason Roberts, a fifth grader, was thankful to have his friends and teacher, Whitney Coch, willing to talk to about his experiences during the hurricane.
The scariest moment for him was when his family saw the water rising from the Myakka River, which is about a mile from his home.
“All of a sudden, it was right in my pasture and still coming up and coming up,” Roberts said. “Then it was right out my back door. It was really deep water.”
Roberts and his family evacuated to Myakka City Elementary School Sept. 28 and stayed at the shelter until the hurricane passed. When they returned home, they found their home had water damage from the flooding.
Morgan Smith, a first grade teacher, was relieved to hear staff members could return to the school Oct. 4.
During the hurricane, Smith took care of her six children alone because her husband, Aaron Smith, is a police officer in Arcadia and he couldn’t get back home for six days.
Morgan Smith said it was a wild storm. They watched tree after tree go down. The biggest worry came when they saw a crack forming on the roof of the laundry room.
“I was watching it flap, and you could see it lifting and I’m seeing daylight,” she said. “I went to get my daughter and told her, ‘I think we’re going to lose part of the roof. Come look.’ By the time we came back (to the laundry room), it was gone.”
When the hurricane passed, the Smith family went outside to assess damage and found one of their cows had died. Without any heavy machinery to move downed trees or ease flooding, Smith said neighbors had to help them.
“The whole thing was just the community coming together,” Smith said.
Smith said Myakka City Elementary School has been a safe haven since the hurricane hit. Carol Ricks, the school’s principal, gave Smith all the details about the school being turned into a shelter in case she wanted to evacuate from her home.
Returning to school, Smith was embraced by her colleagues and friends.
“It meant the world,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t trade that for anything. It’s like having an extension of family. That solidity and security is priceless.”
Smith said being back at school has started to give her a sense of normalcy.
“Seeing everybody’s faces again, knowing that everybody was really OK and we were going to get through this even stronger was great,” she said.
As soon as teachers returned Oct. 4, they touched base with all their families in their classes to see how they were doing and what they needed.
Smith said checking with them was a way for the school to show that the families were not forgotten and that the school was there for them.
Betsy Bickle-Perry, the assistant principal, said the school’s counselor, Debbie Veldkamp, is an excellent resource for students and staff who need social or emotional support.
“A lot of school counselors get so caught up in testing and all those kinds of stuff, but she is truly here for the kids,” Bickle-Perry said. “She is here to help any of them and she has a very good reputation around here about helping families and kids.”
Bickel-Perry said some staff members are worried about the holidays being around the corner because they have to spend so much on repairs.
“We just kind of promised them that we will take care of them,” she said. “If we can’t do it personally, then this community will help.”
Bickel-Perry said the school will most likely do a monthly check in with families through the school newsletter to continue to see what families need and how the school can support them.
Smith said after seeing the kindness of the community in the aftermath of the hurricane, she’ll always be thinking of how she can pitch in and help others.
“It showed that one person can make a huge difference,” she said. “When you get that ball rolling, even if you feel like you have nothing to give, there’s something you can do to help somebody else.”