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Katrina lesson: Schools a key to disaster readiness

As the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, I still shudder when I see video and photos of familiar streetscapes and neighborhoods of New Orleans under water. The hurricane slammed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, flood barriers ruptured, and water poured over nearly 80 percent of that grand city way down yonder.

I lived in New Orleans for six years before moving to North Carolina. So devastating was the post-hurricane flood that New Orleans now has an education system, a health system, and a flood control system far different from when I lived there in the late 60s and early 70s. 

New Orleans serves as a case study in urban resilience, even as it continues to struggle with issues of violent crime, widespread poverty, and coastal land erosion.

In education circles, the city is being studied closely for its transition from an ineffective public school system to a citywide reliance on charter schools. More than 90 percent of public school students now attend charter schools, which have attracted an influx of young college graduates in Teach for America, including several of my recent students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Tulane University’s Cowen Institute has documented significant achievement gains among students in the public charter schools. And the Institute also has pointed to persistent racial separation, with public schools, mostly charters, having 86 percent black enrollment, while private schools have a 60 percent white enrollment.

It remains uncertain what lessons the New Orleans experience with public education dominated by charters will have for North Carolina, other states and cities.

Still, the post-Katrina emotional trauma of children in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast should serve to alert North Carolina anew to its responsibilities to young people in the aftermath of weather-related disasters.

My graduate school classmate, Michael Kiernan, called my attention to a new Save the Children report, “Still at Risk: U.S. Children 10 Years After Hurricane Katrina.”

“No single event in recent U.S. history has traumatized so many children for so long,” said Kiernan, a communications consultant with a long association with Save the Children, a nongovernment agency that engages in disaster relief, child health and education services, and public policy advocacy.

While few children died, says the Save the Children report, the storm destroyed child-care centers and schools, resulted in as many as 5,000 cases of missing children, and resulted in 300,000 children having to enroll in another school. “And children from low-income families often suffered the most,” says the report.

As a national and international agency, Save the Children focuses more on what it sees as an inadequate federal response to the findings of a post-Katrina commission established by Congress and former President George W. Bush. Still, a section of the report offers a state-by-state analysis. It was good to see that North Carolina was among the 32 states that met all four minimum emergency planning standards for schools and child-care facilities: evacuation/relocation, family-child reunification, children with special needs, and K-12 multiple disaster preparedness.

In the section specifically on elementary and secondary education, the Save the Children report notes that 47 states, which include North Carolina, now have written, multi-hazard preparedness plans, but that federal funding to assist states in carrying out emergency plans has “fallen short.” The report also stresses the importance of mental health support through schools, but says that “federal funding for post-disaster mental health services remains limited for schools…”

Of course, North Carolina has its own responsibilities for the adequate funding of its county and city public education systems – including the training of school administrators, teachers, and aides to carry out disaster-emergency plans. This is a state that has had its share of hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods that have caused human distress, especially among children. The Save the Children report serves as a reminder of how critical schools are to children as places where they can feel safe, where in emergencies they have caring adults to guide them and to reconnect them with their families.

Here is the Save the Children report.

The Save the Children report also points out that parents and other family members can do “simple things’’ to enhance the safety of children. For example, put three emergency contacts on a card and store it in a child’s backpack or wallet. Ask child-care providers and schools about their emergency communications protocol.

Here is the Save the Children checklist for parents.


Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.