School & District Management

Region’s Schools Turn Storm’s Havoc Into Transformation

By Christina A. Samuels — August 25, 2010 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 7 min read
A bus ferries children to school past abandoned buildings in New Orleans East. Slightly more than half of the neighborhood's pre-Katrina population of 100,000 has returned since 2005.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misidentified the school where Shonel LeDuff serves as principal. It is Mayfair Middle School.

When Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast town of Pass Christian, Miss., wiping away an elementary and a middle school, community leaders used the destruction as a chance for a new start.

Charitable organizations paid for a day-care center so that residents could return to work. The Middle Eastern nation of Qatar donated money to rebuild the local Boys & Girls Club, which was also heavily damaged by the storm.

Pass Christian pooled its resources and now has what it calls the Pass Christian Center of Excellence: a $32 million facility that houses an elementary school and a middle school, plus the new Boys & Girls Club, and the day-care center. A child could enter day care at 6 weeks old and not have to leave the 2-year-old campus until graduating from 8th grade.

The story of renewal in the 1,500-student Pass Christian district is just one example of the revitalization, changes, and challenges seen by many school districts damaged when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast five years ago. Their experiences have been largely overshadowed by the high-profile efforts to improve education in post-hurricane New Orleans. (“New Orleans Seizes Momentum,” this issue.)

In the United States, the August 2005 storm caused damage from Central Florida to Texas, affecting all the states along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. It displaced about 125,000 students from Louisiana and Mississippi alone, according to a 2007 report by the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, at Columbia University, in collaboration with the Children’s Health Fund.

School districts were forced to cope with massive shifts in enrollments, either adding or losing thousands of students in a migration that is still being felt. School systems revamped their emergency policies to better prepare for future storms.

Even as the memory of Hurricane Katrina has started to recede, the Gulf Coast states have faced new challenges, from the national economic recession and more localized financial worries prompted by the massive BP oil leak. But many superintendents in Gulf Coast towns say that the lessons of Katrina make it a little easier to cope with those new stresses.

“You could not just feel sorry for yourself. People had to work together to survive it,” said Alan Dedeaux, the superintendent of the 4,400-student Hancock, Miss., district. “We’ve learned to adapt.”

New Facilities, Procedures

In Slidell, La., one sign of renewal was the Aug. 9 reopening of Salmen High School. The original building was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and the federal government paid for the construction of a new, $52 million building. The 800-student school is a “beautiful facility,” said Superintendent W.L. “Trey” Folse III, the head of the 36,500-student St. Tammany school district.

St. Tammany Parish, which was already growing before the hurricane, also added students after the storm.

Mr. Folse, who stayed in the parish’s emergency-management center as the storm raged, said the district has developed new procedures in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. School staff members now know exactly what their duties should be after a storm, so they won’t have to rely on spotty communications as they did in 2005.

The community surrounding the New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy remains a mix of occupied and abandoned houses.

“Everyone from the superintendent to the custodians know what’s expected of them,” Mr. Folse said. Also, several school facilities now have on-site generators so those buildings can serve as shelters for administrators and other school employees, he said.

Hurricane Katrina has also brought personal growth for some educators.

The 42,000-student East Baton Rouge district, about 70 miles north of New Orleans, absorbed thousands of displaced students right after the storm. Displaced teachers also sought jobs there. Many have moved on, but others have decided to stay, such as former New Orleans high school teacher Shonel LeDuff. She was a math department chairwoman, but now serves as the principal of Mayfair Middle School in Baton Rouge.

Ms. LeDuff fled New Orleans ahead of Hurricane Katrina with her husband and daughter, then a toddler. She was two months pregnant at the time. The family stopped in Baton Rouge, the state capital, only because after spending hours in the car, “I couldn’t go a second longer,” she recalled.

After the devastation became clear, the New Orleans native applied for a job with the East Baton Rouge district. She said other administrators saw leadership potential in her, though she had never considered being a principal. But five years later, “here I am, principal of a school,” Ms. LeDuff said. “It’s been a rough road, but it’s been good.”

Some students also are sharing a new start: In the districts throughout a multistate region that received students after the storm, the Louisiana-area students who stayed have long ago dropped the label of “displaced.”

For example, more than 7,000 students from Louisiana enrolled in the 203,000-student Houston district after Katrina. About 700 remain, but as far as Houston is concerned, “they’re our kids,” said district spokesman Norm Uhl.

Road Ahead

But the path to full recovery still lies ahead for some districts in the Gulf region. High insurance rates and new building codes have made it difficult for some former residents to return to the coast.

Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish district, for instance, had about 8,800 students before the storm, according to a document from the school system. But almost every structure in the parish was damaged by Hurricane Katrina and its accompanying storm surge. Nine of the parish’s 15 schools have reopened, and the district has about 4,800 students now.

The national economic crisis and the oil leak have also stalled the recovery in some districts.

Eddie Barns, the student body president at the New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy, is a junior from New Orleans East. He was a leader during the school's orientation week for students. Last year, Mr. Barns achieved a perfect score on the math portion of the state's exit exam.

Paul A. Tisdale, the superintendent of the 4,700-student Biloxi district in Mississippi, is coping with lower enrollment and a resulting reduction in state aid. About 6,100 students were enrolled in the district before Hurricane Katrina.

Biloxi has seen a drop in revenue from the casinos on the Gulf Coast because of the recession. In response to the decrease in gambling revenue and cuts by the state, the district laid off 17 teachers, didn’t fill 23 open positions, and closed three schools. One of the three is an elementary school that had opened a year before Hurricane Katrina, was damaged by the storm, and then reopened—only to close once more because of a drop in enrollment.

“We anticipate more budget cuts from the state, but we don’t know how much,” Mr. Tisdale said. On the positive side, the military has rebuilt housing for Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, which will mean more families with children.

The impact of the BP oil leak in the area is hard to quantify, Mr. Tisdale said. In Biloxi, there may be a few families directly affected by restrictions on fishing, but the effects on the district are more likely to be indirect, through a loss of tourist dollars, he said. The beaches are open, but no one knows yet how many vacationers may have stayed away because of tales of tar balls washing ashore.

Keeping a close watch on finances and keeping the school board informed have become even more essential as the district faces financial woes.

“There’s been some difficult decisions, but my board has stood with me because we’ve done a good job keeping them informed,” Mr. Tisdale said.

Glen V. East, the superintendent of the 5,400-student Gulfport, Miss., district, said his school system’s enrollment is still down by about 500 students from pre-Katrina levels. The district has not had to lay off teachers, but it is operating with a smaller budget than it had before the storm.

Hurricane Katrina recovery aid in the district “softened the blow of the real fiscal picture,” Mr. East said. “It finally hit us square on the head about a year and a half ago.”

Sue Matheson, the superintendent of the Pass Christian schools, joked that her community, which has a number of residents who fish and shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico, is waiting for the next new problem: locusts.

“We were at a point where we lived [Katrina] for so long, and then we moved on,” Ms. Matheson said. “Then, in April, we had that huge oil spill in the Gulf. Economically, it’s been another setback for us.”

Still, she added, “I would not have scripted it this way, but many, many things have come out of this storm. Not only the new physical buildings, but what we all came to appreciate is what’s really important in life.

“We’ve just learned to give back—that was the really great lesson that we’ve learned.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 25, 2010 edition of Education Week as Gulf-Region Schools Turn Storm’s Havoc Into Transformation

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