December 11th, 2012
04:00 AM ET

7 years to build school, 15 minutes for storm to wreck it

This is the second in a two-part series about recovery from Superstorm Sandy. Today's story follows one school, Scholars' Academy, as it struggles to reopen. Yesterday's story told the story of one student, Scholars' eighth-grader Ryan Panetta, as his family rebuilds after the storm.

By Rose Arce, CNN

New York (CNN) - Brian O'Connell remembers the plays in the big auditorium at Scholars' Academy, the workout room outfitted by parents, the rows of computers, the winning teams, the honor society.

“We had pretty much 100% of the kids going to college last year,” said O’Connell, the tall, fresh-faced principal of the school. “We had teams playing competitively around the city, an orchestra, plays on a top-notch stage.”

The night Superstorm Sandy pelted New York, it took 15 minutes to lose it all.

“I look at the videos and I can’t believe how quickly the water rose,” O’Connell said early this month as he watched surveillance footage from the storm.

The water flowed from the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay, tainted by overflow from a nearby sewage treatment plant. The video shows water rising as if released from a spigot, sweeping through the front of the school, climbing up the front stairs and pouring into the basement boiler.

“The next time I got in there, my grand piano was floating,” O’Connell said.

Scholars’ Academy was one of 1,750 schools badly damaged by the storm, one of many still trying to clean up and rebuild weeks later. The nation’s largest school system was so wounded by the storm that it shut down for days. Even when schools reopened, 73,000 kids were displaced from their regular buildings. The district had lost 300 buses to water. Repairs moved quickly, but by early December, 5,400 children were still being bused to temporary schools.

Scholars’ Academy is one of 56 buildings that are so severely damaged they won’t reopen until next year. More than half the school’s students saw damage to their homes. All of them are now riding long hours to study in borrowed school spaces.

The academy is in Far Rockaway, a beach town on the far end of Queens. The school is blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, and from its roof, you can see the Manhattan skyline. Dee Dee Ramone, who combed the beaches here as a kid, famously sang about it:

The sun is out, I want some
It’s not hard, not far to reach
We can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach

The song was a big hit in the late 1970s; O’Connell, 45, still hums it sometimes. It was the story of his generation, the kids who grew up here, spending weekends on the sandy shore. Some, like O’Connell, stayed and built up the summertime oasis into an enclave where working-class families could own a bungalow, raise their kids and send them to good schools.

At least, that was O’Connell’s plan.

“When we started, you should have seen this place,” he said of the building now home to Scholars’ Academy.

Brian O'Connell visits his students at their temporary school.

The school that used to be in his building had been shut down. The academics were terrible, and the hallways violent. O’Connell took over and invested seven years in building Scholars' Academy into a highly rated public junior and senior high school.

“Sandy came in and did a number on us,” O’Connell said. “So now we have to simply take a step back and say, ‘Well, we built from nothing before, and in some ways, less than nothing.’"

See how one Scholars' Academy family is coping

O’Connell’s own home was damaged by the storm. His upper floors still have no power. His mother’s basement apartment is beyond repair. Humidity is eating the walls. After the storm, O’Connell had no place to live, and no school left to run.

He moved into a hotel, paid for by FEMA, and was back at work the next day with a plan to put his school back together. Crews pushed forward, uncertain even now about when the school will reopen. There are bad moments, too, like when the school was looted after the storm, losing dozens of new iPads and computers.

O’Connell said he kept his composure until he saw the podium the parents gave him his first year. It was toppled and covered with sewage.

“That really got to me,” he said.

The gym at Scholars' Academy is a construction site.

The whole experience reminds O’Connell of the building he walked into years ago, when far fewer kids graduated, let alone went to college.

“Now we’re in a position where at least we have a great core group of teachers, phenomenal students (and) a really concerned, active, supportive parent body,” he said.

Stacy Amato, co-president of the school’s PTA, said the school stood out for its diversity, its technology, its graduation rate, how many students it sent to college, how many teachers were willing to stay late. Before the storm, she said, “we were really rocking and rolling.” More parents were bringing fresh energy to the school, organizing fundraisers, printing sweatshirts, paying for new equipment.

Now, parents are waiting on word for how they can help rebuild and bring some normalcy to their kids’ lives. Amato’s own family was displaced for 18 days after the storm. Her son, a seventh-grader, is attending classes at the temporary school.

“I am concerned about the health of the building, that everything has been cleaned and taken care of,” Amato said. “This place is like a family to (O’Connell) and I know he will do it right.”

Workers are rebuilding inside Scholars' Academy.

On a typical day now, O’Connell wakes up in his hotel room, then travels to his students’ temporary schools. Then, he comes back to Scholars’ Academy and pushes crews to get the place running.

The city allocated $200 million to make repairs to schools like Scholars’ Academy. A week after the storm, it swarmed with construction crews and heavy equipment, but there’s a lot to do, and more to buy.

The shiny gym floor had buckled and floor padding, recently purchased by parents, was ruined. The cheerleaders’ uniforms were drenched in scum, and the auditorium’s seats and sound system sat in a pool of water. Band and orchestra instruments bobbed in the water, with mold forming in their cases. Anything that wasn’t 4 feet off the ground floor was destroyed, including scores of books, music, uniforms, teachers’ belongings and workbooks. Every chair, table and desk on the first floor sat in water for days, rusting the feet.

“I worry that anything we don’t tear up will rot or mold or buckle,” O’Connell said. “I quantify the loss in terms of what it’s actually gonna cost me if I have to replace those items new. … It really adds up because some of these items are quite expensive, quite dear.”

Meanwhile, his students are packed into classes at W.H. Maxwell Career and Technical Education High School and P.S. 13, schools in East New York, worlds away from the beach. P.S. 13 found space for about 700 Scholars’ Academy students in closets, halls, offices, the cafeteria, “every single place we can imagine,” P.S. 13 principal Sabrina Fleming said.

“A lot of them, they didn't have food, they didn't have clothing, they didn't have a place to stay. For a lot of them, they just wanted a place to come together,” Fleming said. “That's why I said, ‘You know, how can we not give them this opportunity, where they can come together and at least be with their friends?’”

It’s tough on the teachers, too, Fleming said. When Scholars’ Academy teachers walked in, many had lost their homes. The P.S. 13 faculty hugged them. For kids, staff members distributed outline drawings of a child and asked the kids to fill in their emotions.

“They lost everything,” said Fleming, who now shares her main office with a second set of staff members. “The emotions are definitely high here. So, the first week, it was a lot of counseling for their staff … we are definitely able to relate to their loss.”

There are tests looming, ceremonies already missed. They recently held parent-teacher day in a big auditorium at a replacement school. The fall sports season is flying by, with no plan yet for how to replace the Scholars’ Academy Seawolves equipment or musical instruments.

“When you go to the beach as a kid, you build a sandcastle. And as a kid, you learn early on that, sometimes, that tide comes in and it wipes out your sandcastle. What you do, when you can, you don’t necessarily move your location,” O’Connell said, speaking like a kid from Rockaway Beach. “You rebuild.”

To donate to Scholars' Academy, visit

CNN's Poppy Harlow contributed to this report.

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Filed under: Hurricane Sandy
soundoff (41 Responses)
  1. Name*Soren

    Serious health issues with mold. Very difficult cleaning process. Very costly. Should prep for mid Atlantic tsunami that may happen after 12/21/12.

    December 15, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
    • Sorenson (Soren's son)

      Dad is right. Idea to dig man made canals to aid in faster run off at minimum.

      December 15, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
  2. wagneje

    These comments display pure ignorance and further more are irrelevant to the story. This story is about the recovery process that is underway from Super Storm Sandy. Recovery from a disaster is usually the longest part of the cycle; and for many it can be difficult. I am involved with a resource and recovery committee, which is still helping families in Montgomery County, PA recover from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee; these storms happen over a year ago and the impact was much less than NYC and NJ Shore communities saw with Super Storm Sandy. I wish them well in their efforts and look forward to CNN following up on their success.

    December 12, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
  3. jessec

    I applaud this principal and the teachers for all they have done to make that school great and to all of you who put the idiots on here in thier place. Really bomb the inner cities and what is that stupid stuff about blacks. Grow up people and take a long look in the mirror before you talk about others that way.

    December 11, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
  4. Michael Olsen

    Not even addressing how ridiculous the premise of this comment is, I think we all need to consider that "below the Mason-Dixon line" includes Maryland, D.C. (*the nation's capital*), Virginia, and Florida, all areas that broke for Barack Obama. Not all teabaggers, now, are they?

    December 11, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  5. palintwit

    What would be wrong with rounding up all the baggers and birthers and performing lobotomies on them? Oh wait... they've all had lobotomies already.

    December 11, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • alumette

      indeed. The damage is done already.

      December 11, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
  6. ethermonster

    Let's just firebomb the inner cities and start over...

    December 11, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • OakieGirl

      That would work, except the blacks aren't just in the cities. 🙁

      December 11, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
      • Guest

        I still can not understand what race has to do with anything. There are good and bad people in all races. Every person is their own, you can't judge everyone in a race because of the few you have encountered. Instead of attacking others, help others. For example, start by helping rebuild this school for these children and donate.

        December 11, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
      • Guest Ma

        May God have mercy on your soul. Seriously–it is not 1865 any more, or even 1965. (Not to mention–your ignorance is on display for all to see....)

        December 11, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  7. JeremyH6

    Typical liberal ignorance and hatred.

    December 11, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  8. Chris

    One thing I don't understand, how are the uniforms destroyed? Clothes get dirty all the time, we have this thing called soap and washing machines designed to take care of such things.

    December 11, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Guest

      The clothes sat in sewage tainted water for over a week. Mold & bacteria will start digesting the fabric in that amount of time. The black mold & other types will leave permanent black or other color spots as stains on fabrics, even if it is able to be sanitized.

      December 11, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Duh Huh Chrissy Pooh

      And we do not understand how people with your IQ level get a PC (Personal Computer)

      December 11, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • Far Rockawayer

      Come to Far Rockaway and look at the garbage piled next to people's houses. Maybe that'll give you some idea.
      Salt water and sewage can cause alot of damage, especially when they sit in one place for days.
      Oh yeah, and salt water destroys washing machines too.

      December 11, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • JL

      Hey Chris,
      I am the Athletic Director at the school that was badly damaged. The sports uniforms were in bins in our sports closet. When I went back in to the school all of the uniforms were covered in salt water and sewage. Next to our school is a wate treatment plant. Most of our athletic equipment, full weight room, uniforms were covered in 18" – 24" of water/sewage. All materials must be thrown away. Would you want your child in clothing that was covered in sewage??

      December 13, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  9. Ricky Gover

    It's called flood insurance people. You live near water you buy it. Very simple.

    December 11, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • AnneSD

      Large organizations big corporations and government agencies (e.g. school districts) will often self-insure. They put money aside in the same way an insurance company does, betting on the odds that they won't need to rebuild multiple stakeholders. This covers them for things like a school building catching fire or structural damage in a building. Unfortunately, in this very unusual confluence of weather factors, the hit is much larger and there is not enough money to cover all of the damages right away.

      December 11, 2012 at 3:10 pm |

        FEMA will assit them but it will be a long time before the money actually shows. Floating a loan may get them by.

        December 11, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
      • Guest

        Our schools are self insured(the Diocese has a disaster relief fund) & we found it had one advantage.
        There was a plan activated that already had a disaster response company on alert. Tuesday; the morning after Sandy, they were onsite. By 2PM they had already tarped the Grammar School roof that had been torn off. They had also started pumping out water from higher parts of the High School before the Governor finished his flyby or The Army Corps of Engineers even brought their pumps to town.
        I cannot say enough good things about those wonderful people. They are continuing to work on our School, church, parish center, rectory, & nunnery. Having them helped us hit the ground running.

        December 11, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • lorynx

      Yes, and when it's been deemed wasteful – I am sure that you and those that think like you will be the first to complain about wasteful government spending.

      December 11, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  10. judeamorris

    They will rebuild. Hurricanes regularly take out schools in Southern states. I was a teacher in one such school. We shut down for over a month, and teachers helped clear out ruined materials, scrub down equipment, and get things organized. FEMA and other funds from the feds brought new books to replace those ruined. We were up and running in no time. The city was a disaster zone, but in a year's time, we were back to normal with very little sign that we had taken a bullet. Healing from disasters goes on and on every year in coastal areas and in tornado alleys across this country.

    December 11, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • Guest

      Pretty much what we did too, a lot of work by parents, students, alumni, & friends got the kids back to school on November 18th. Although we will not be receiving help from FEMA or taxpayers since we are a Catholic school. With the help of the diocese we were able to hire a company that has worked on disasters before. The damaged areas were pumped out, have been sealed off, & being worked on.
      The students are adapting until things are restored. For example; They are doing health classes because the locker rooms are unavailable right now. The High School is sharing the Grammar School facilities across the street for music classes. They hold Health classes & Lunch in the Gym . The seniors are happy, they are being allowed the freedom to eat lunch out at food places in town early this year to reduce crowding. Usually, they do not get that privilege until the final marking period. Luckily, the flood waters stopped 2 inches from the wall of the school's favorite local pizza place 😉 Everyone else has to brown bag lunch until they rebuild the cafeteria. After school, they fold up the tables & chairs for sports & practices.
      It is temporary, but it works.

      December 11, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  11. Bob

    Lesson: dont spend such a long frigging time building schools.

    December 11, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Mrs.D

      Did any of you even read the story-first off it is a Public School-you don't have to be rich to get in-you have to be a good dedicated student-you get chosen to attend and have to maintain a certain average. You missed the point-this principal took a failing school and turned it into a highly rated Scholar's Academy-he should definitely be commended for that-we need more people like him that cares so much about our kids-after all – what we produce now is the future of our country. He has done this over 7 years-not 7 years to build the school building/again-read the whole article next time.

      December 11, 2012 at 11:22 am |
      • DanD

        We might have a comprehension problem, maybe needs to attend Scholar’s Academy

        December 11, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
      • cj

        Makes you wonder if people read or do they just see a bunch of words? it did seem quite elementary the reference was to the accomplishment, not the construction process. Lord help us.

        December 11, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
    • Reyna

      lesson: actually read the friggin article instead of complaining about it an see how much work that ONE man put into the damn school

      December 11, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  12. Reading Skills

    It's a public school. Maybe you should attend so you can gain some reading comprehension skills!!

    December 11, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  13. /lol

    honetly, who care, it is a private school, let the rich rebuild it if they want their kid to return.

    December 11, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • Squeezebox

      You don't have to be rich to send your kids to a private school. My father was in a nursing home and my mother and the three of us kids were living off of social security disability payments and SSI, but we made the sacrifices (like no cable TV or internet, no eating out, growing our own vegetables, etc....) and went to Catholic schools. There was really no choice because there was no voucher program in Ohio back then and the public schools were very violent and the education was substandard. My mother invested in us kids because she loved us.

      December 11, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • romedidm

      A private school doesn't mean that it's a rich school. Try to drop the bias and learn what you are talking about. If you are not happy with how something is going you just put up with it, others find a way to press on and improve what they don't like.

      December 11, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • DLG

      Epic fail of a response. Not a rich neighborhood, not a private school. There aren't any good private schools in Rockaway. Rich people send their kids outside of the Penninsula. The fact that Scholar's Academy turned a terrible school into a decent one is a big victory for an area that has few resources (they just lost a hospital for example).

      You didn't read the article. No rich people are having their kids being forced to travel to East New York (not near Rockaway) to stay in closets. This is about poor people who can't afford to have their kids stay at home.

      December 11, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Guest

      A lot of people who are not wealthy are opting to sacrifice for a safe place for their kids to learn. My child's High School IS rebuilding without a dime from FEMA or the public's taxes.
      St Rose in Belmar opened back up on the 18th of November when the new boiler was functioning. The damaged areas are sealed off, while they gut & renovate all the corridors that were flooded. Currently we have no cafeteria, no locker rooms, no music rooms, & no theater. Science & administration are now in trailers while those 2 corridors are being fixed.
      However; what we DO have is a school that is both tenacious & adaptable. Making each day better than the one before it as we work together. We also are continuing to help others as well as ourselves. We obviously have a sense of community spirit that you lack /lol.
      Therefore, despite Sandy, we win & you lose!

      December 11, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • dc

      1) It's a public school. Read the article before you spew mindless, thoughtless vitriol to temporarily fend off your own self-loathing.

      2) Private schools aren't just for the rich. My wife and I both work our tails off to send our kids to private school because the public schools is our area are useless and we can't afford to move to a better suburb yet. We're not starving, but we're in no way, shape, or form what you would even dream of calling "rich".

      The people who get on these boards and just hate on everythind and everybody make me sick. Here's a school with a committed principal, faculty, and parents who are leading their students to success through quality education, and people want to trash them because...who knows why. I guess some people just hate themselves so much they want everyone to suck as bad as they do. Sad.

      December 11, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Guest

      The Scholars' Academy is actually a public school. It can easily be mistaken for a private school because of the high grades, requirements, and well behaved children.

      December 11, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  14. Greenspam

    Today Republicans celebrate the tearing down of another sign of socialism – govt sponsored public school.

    December 11, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Squeezebox

      In most urban districts, the inmates are running the asylum. Violent, borderline personality kids are terrorizing the classrooms making learning impossible. Shutting down the public schools would actually be a good thing because it would give all schools the same ability to KICK OUT VICIOUS KIDS!

      December 11, 2012 at 11:09 am |
      • OakieGirl

        As a teacher from an urban school, I give your statement a heartfelt thumbs up. These kids are a nightmare; in one year I was stabbed with a needle, threatened with a six inch steak knife and nearly died from the flu which was deliberately coughed into my face. I'm still paying off the hospital bills from that one. Not to mention that my checkbook and drivers license disappeared out of my own purse which was kept in a "secure" closet...guess how old my little gems are...

        Second grade. You people better hope 12/21/12 is have no idea what's coming from our next generation of darlings.

        December 11, 2012 at 1:04 pm |