Quick Reopening of Schools is Key to Recovery if You Care about Your People

New Orleans   The Houston Independent School District (HISD) has 287 schools. There are 20 school districts in Harris County. Our union represents school workers. We were on the phones with anyone we knew last week in Houston, calling our members to assess their situation and offer assistance in filling out FEMA forms or anything else they might need. We were also talking to managers up and down the district about the reopening, the number of schools that would be involved, and how workers would be deployed. At one point it looked like only a few more than 30 would be unable to open two weeks after the storm and at other times as many as 80. The final number on opening day seems in the mid-50 range, but the key accomplishment in Houston, and a huge lesson learned from Katrina, was that school in fact did open, come hell or high water.

After Katrina the tragic error made by everyone connected to the New Orleans school system started with the decision to keep schools closed. Obviously the storm was worse and schools were damaged, but blowing off the school year created irreversible harm, that the city has not recovered from after a dozen years. Families with school age children, often traumatized by the storm and unable to find housing and often with jobs in jeopardy as well, were forced to stay where they were sheltered or evacuated, find housing, enroll school age children in school, and find jobs, making it hard to return and hard to work to recover in New Orleans.

In Houston, school employees were retained and in fact were guaranteed wages for the weeks they were out of school. In New Orleans more than 5000 teachers and other personnel were fired. In Houston workers in shuttered schools are being deployed elsewhere in order to be maintained. In New Orleans senior workers were not only not retained, but were also forced to face discrimination and barriers in reapplying. In Houston the emphasis has been retaining people and gaining stability. In New Orleans the leadership decision, influenced by federal policy and incentives, was to reorder and replace people. In Houston there is determination to recover. In New Orleans there was an effort to achieve something similar to ethnic cleansing by whitening the population. Houston will retain its people. New Orleans is still 80,000 people or more below its 2005 population.

Does it matter? Heck, yes!

Look at just one factor, like the mental health and resilience of children living through such disasters. Here’s a report from the Times:

Unlike an earthquake or a fire, flooding from a storm like Katrina or Harvey leaves many houses and buildings still physically standing but uninhabitable, simultaneously familiar and strange, like a loved one sinking into dementia. Surveys done in the seven years after Katrina found that the rate of diagnosable mental health problems in the New Orleans area jumped 9 percent – a sharper spike than after other natural disasters – and the effects did not discriminate much by race or income.”

There are impacts to public policy decisions. There are tragic outcomes to ideological and governmental initiatives that use entire cities and populations as test tubes and Guinea pigs for disastrous experiments. And, everybody pays, both the intended victims and the bystanders.

Good work, Houston. Another lesson from Katrina learned!

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Please enjoy Mavis Staples – If All I Was Was Black.

Thanks to KABF.

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Twelve Years Since Katrina, and Water Rising in Houston May Teach New Lessons

Houston flooding

New Orleans   A tiny frog hopped out from under the dryer in our kitchen this morning to mark the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the wet water wonder world engulfing us today.

It’s still dark outside though close to 9 in the morning with a steady rain pouring since the predawn from our share of Tropical Storm Harvey that continues to inundate the Gulf Coast and has turned Houston’s bayous into small rivers and whole neighborhoods into lakes. The papers compared the differences and similarities between Harvey and Katrina. We had a record storm surge. They have a record rain that eventually may top 4 feet in some spots and has already equaled the average annual rainfall amount in others.

Local 100 represents school workers, but the schools have all been closed and won’t open until after Labor Day at best. We know from Katrina that some schools, as well as other public and private buildings, may be so damaged that it may be months, not days before they reopen. Where I was supposed to stay tonight in Houston on my original travel schedule reports that they have electricity, but no water, making it a campground of sorts. Chaco and I were going to catch our almost annual Houston Astros game tonight and tomorrow night against the Texas Rangers, but that game is now being played in St. Petersburg, Florida at the Rays stadium. All of my Houston work is now pushed to the end of next week, when we hope everything has dried out and things are back to normal.

We know from Katrina though that the so-called “new” normal is simply an expression that things can never be as they were before. Hearing the New Orleans mayor report that one pump in the city caught on fire and has been taken off line and trying to assure the citizens here on the Katrina anniversary that we can handle 10 inches of water if it falls between Tuesday and Friday is hardly comforting. Of course there is a “but,” as in, but if a rain “band,”as they now call them, stalls over us, many areas are in trouble.

The never normal is now coming to Houston just as it did to New Orleans, but maybe there’s a bigger difference than the papers have listed. Houston is not a majority African-American city, and is a thriving, economic engine throughout their metropolitan area growing great guns. Land is worth more, and there is more wealth. New Orleanians saw that in the response and welcome of the Houston to our refugees.

Looking for a silver lining to this climatic catastrophe, perhaps Houston will marshal the will and resources to grab the bull by the horns and finally do something different to prepare for the next time, rather than refusing to learn – or afford – the lessons of this time. Breaking out of the denier mode and forging a new path would be a gift in Houston for all Texans, and for all of the rest of us it would also show the direction and force us to follow.

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