Parents, school personnel and assistance workers responded with anger to the confusion surrounding the evacuation of about 1,700 National City youngsters from their schools Friday because of fears that smoke from a nearby scrap yard blaze was toxic.
While the evacuation of National City Junior High School to Chula Vista High School caused few problems, the elementary schools were forced to move to different evacuation sites three times.
Officials of the National Elementary School District, responding to the inundation of their schools by smoke from the blaze, decided to evacuate Kimball and John A. Otis elementary schools early in the day. Staff from the two schools moved the children to nearby Los Palmas Park.
Parents became angered when they went to locate their children and found that the students had been moved from Los Palmas Park to El Toyon Park, and then to El Toyon Elementary School. The first relocation was ordered by National City Police, the second after school officials discovered that the elementary school had been designated as a shelter.
Teachers Seek Answers
School district officials expressed anger with city and county health officials, who waited until about 10 a.m. to inform them that the fumes could be toxic.
"The concern we had was why we weren't notified earlier," said George Cameron, assistant superintendent of the National Elementary School District, Friday afternoon. "If we had been notified earlier, we could have just canceled school. Now the biggest concern we have is maintaining order."
Teachers at the two elementary schools said they had to contact their principals and then district superintendents to find out if there was a serious problem.
"It was really bad outside and I could see a lot of smoke, so I just said, 'We are all going to stay inside now,' and I went to get the custodian," said Ruth Ann Wheatley, who teaches fifth grade at Kimball Elementary. "Nobody said anything to us, and we knew there was trouble."
At the second evacuation site, El Toyon Park, parents were arriving angry and confused, and the teachers and school officials had few answers.
"Where are my children and what are we supposed to do now? That's all I want to know," one father, Luis Gonzalez, continually asked passers-by as he quieted his two children from Kimball Elementary. His two older children had been evacuated to Chula Vista High School and his home had been declared to be in the evacuation area for an indefinite time.
"Nobody tells us anything," Gonzales said. "We just sit here with nowhere to go. And this morning the police came by and told my wife to leave, and then when she was getting ready, a helicopter flew overhead telling her to stay inside and close the windows."
Gonzales, like many other parents and teachers, was searching for answers, none of which were coming from city or county officials. Teachers walked about, shooting questions at each other and at passers-by who they thought might have some knowledge of the situation. Some complained there was no organization among the numerous agencies and officials involved in the incident. Meanwhile, they spent time discussing how to keep the children occupied.
At one point, several teachers bemoaned a new announcement by the school district that they would be expected to stay at the evacuation site until at least 6 p.m.
"What are we going to do? The kids don't have any warm clothes," one teacher yelled.
Teachers weren't the only ones who were upset by the apparent lack of coordination. Paramedics from Hartson Medical Services, who were also transporting evacuees, and Salvation Army workers were also voicing confusion and anger.
"This is extremely unorganized and ridiculous," said James Hood, a Salvation Army worker who was dispensing water from large red jugs to a line of more than 100 children. "Where is the Red Cross, and what are we going to do now?"
The Red Cross had set up a shelter for evacuees almost directly across the street from the park, but nobody notified school officials of the fact until well after 2:30 p.m.
Red Cross officials said they were at the elementary school for almost the entire day but did not announce the site as a designated shelter until 2 p.m.