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!
Thanks to KABF.