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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Lessons of Disaster

New Orleans We keep a constant hurricane watch at my house. Anyone who has ever had the eye of a hurricane pass over them, keeps their eye on every hurricane. Having just seen the impact of Harvey in Houston and Beaumont, I have been upset over some of the lessons forgotten since Katrina. I have daily texts from a friend and comrade in Puerto Rico about the continuing lack of power and water there from Hurricane Irma. We watch for news of friends and their evacuation from Miami and Tampa-St. Petersburg.

But, let’s focus on the positive for a minute. I wrote a book a couple of years after Katrina called ACORN, the Rebuilding of New Orleans and the Lessons of Disaster (2011, Social Policy Press), so let’s see what lessons have been learned, because some of this is better news.

  • After Katrina it took four days for federal authorities to even get approval for the military to help the stranded population. Reportedly there was virtually no delay in getting military into help after Harvey.
  • FEMA has spent $2 billion after Katrina to assist communities in making disaster plans and training local officials, and 80% now have confidence in their plans, compared to 40% in 2005.
  • Training of federal and local authorities is now aligned and collective.
  • FEMA now positions supplies at designated shelters before the storms hit, not afterwards when too often they are also blocked by flooded roads and impassable conditions.
  • After watching people in the Katrina footprint refuse evacuation because they couldn’t leave their pets to die, Congress passed a law requiring emergency mangers to make provisions for animals. In Houston existing kennels were evacuated and other kennels were set up in advance to be ready.
  • DHHS forced hospitals in the wake of so many tragedies in Katrina to have emergency plans and train their personnel to handle them. Reportedly some rough edges were still dragging, but talking to a friend whose mother was in a nursing facility in Houston, the response was much more effective.
  • FEMA now accepts volunteer help rather than resisting assistance from citizens even when overwhelmed allow the possibility of organizations like the Cajun Navy to move from Louisiana to Houston and Florida in order to be on the scene to help in evacuations and recovery.

It’s not perfect. There are still huge arguments over whether to shelter-in-place or evacuate. Houston’s mayor elected to not make evacuation mandatory. Florida’s governor gave an unparalleled order for over 6 million to evacuate. These are apples and oranges, but this debate will continue.

Fortunately, cell phones are now ubiquitous so it is easier to communicate with more people and issue emergency warnings.

All of this is progress, but we still have a long way to go.

We asked Amazon’s robot thing, Alexa, about Hurricane Irma. She didn’t understand. We asked about weather in Miami and then in Fort Meyers, and Alexa said there was rain and tornado warnings. Then we asked about storm surge, and Alexa was clueless. The moral of that story is simple. It still is going to take all of us on the ground to key an eye on hurricanes continually, because we have been there and done that.

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