To get an idea of just how vulnerable Marco Island Academy was to Hurricane Irma, look at on the map. Sitting on a skinny isthmus at the extreme southern edge of Marco Island, where the storm roared ashore with 120-mph winds, less than a quarter mile of low-lying mangrove swamp separated the school’s campus from open water.

More: Hurricane Irma: How Marco Island weathered the storm

But while nearby Goodland was devastated, with four feet of water in some buildings and trees and debris littering the landscape, Marco Island Academy (MIA), the island’s charter high school, survived with remarkably little damage, even though the school’s buildings consist of modular pre-fab units, essentially mobile homes serving as classrooms.

So Monday morning, the school marked the first day back for the students with a ceremony, and what MIA Principal Melissa Scott called a “Cat 4 Continental” breakfast. After brief remarks by Scott, the highlight of the ceremony consisted of raising a special flag over the school.

“A resident – he didn’t want his name used – stopped by the school before the storm, and gave us this flag,” said Scott. “It flew over our bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. He assured me our school would come through the storm, and we could raise the flag after Irma passed.

“We just want to welcome everyone back. I feel truly blessed,” she said. “The flag is supposed to represent unity and bring us all together.”

Scott said the flag had gone with her as she fled from Irma’s wrath.

“I drove and drove, looking for a hotel room,” and ended up going all the way to North Carolina. “This flag was my talisman. I kissed it every day.”

After she spoke, MIA junior Jay Cartwright walked to the flagpole, and with little fanfare tugged the rope that hoisted Old Glory into the bright blue sky, now the veteran of one more battle. After he tied off the flag atop the pole in front of the school, he pumped his fist and called “America!” drawing a round of applause from his fellow students.

“Miss Scott selected me cuz she knows I love America,” he said. Cartwright said he was glad and relieved to be back in school and have the routine of classes again.

“It gives a sense of normalcy I’ve been missing – and I’m tired of working for my dad’s company for free,” he said. Other students have been helping out with relief efforts, putting in volunteer hours in Goodland, Everglades City and 6-L Farms, all hard-hit by Irma.

Given the circumstances, the MIA staff has taken to calling the school’s survival with hardly any damage the “miracle on Marco,” said Scott. She marveled at the school’s escape.

“Crazy as it sounds, FEMA was using us as a staging area. I think the trees really sheltered us she said. I guess we have waterfront property now.”

Before the ceremony, and afterward as they ate their breakfasts, the students sat or stood on the school’s raised, wood-planked central courtyard, caught up with their friends and traded storm stories. The canvas awnings overhead had been removed before Irma struck, and had not yet been replaced. Senior Connor Heidemann told assistant principal Amber Richardson he had been accepted into the Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, and got a hug in return.

As a charter school, MIA operates next to but distinct from other public schools. While many of MIA’s students previously attended Marco Island Charter Middle School (MICMS), on the school district’s books, Marco Island students are zoned for Manatee Middle School, and then Lely High School. To attend MIA, students and their parents have to make a conscious decision, apply and go through the enrollment process. The school has about 230 students, and an “A” ranking from the State of Florida.


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