Fighting Poverty with Passion
The 3rd floor of the library was buzzing with the emergency alert siren all morning on Tuesday, February 7th. The first time the alert went off on my cell phone that morning, it was a bit unsettling to read a text message advising me to “Take shelter immediately.” The clouds outside our office window were an ominous dark gray so I relentlessly checked the online weather reports. We received phone calls from some of our students letting us know that they would not be coming to class due to the weather. The students who were already in the classroom were anxious while some considered leaving to go home. By the nth alert and automated phone call, my worries began to subside. Every alert notification I received on my phone felt like the alert who cried wolf, but the underlying anxiety and fear of Mother Nature’s unpredictability remained. The only other time I’d experienced a tornado warning was while I was visiting family in Chicago in November of 2013. This was when the Bears game had to be put on hold for a couple of hours. In the end, Chicago and its suburbs (where I was at the time) were left unscathed. Unfortunately, there was devastating damage, injuries, and fatalities further south and into surrounding states.
Later that Tuesday afternoon, my co-worker Jocelyn informed me that one of our students had called in a shaken state just to let us know that she would not be coming to class. She had taken shelter in her bathtub, as a friend had suggested, when a tornado hit her home. Only the front of her home was damaged. I quickly looked up where her home was located and immediately learned that the tornado had touched down in New Orleans East.
This is a quick side note about journalism in this day and age: It is incredible how instantaneous news and events can be reported or tracked in real-time. Within 10 minutes of hearing the news about our student, Twitter was flooded with cell phone videos of the tornado as it traveled past people’s windows and the aftermath as people surveyed their streets.
The hours and days following the tornado put a lot of people on edge. The immediate response was, “We need to help!” or “We need to take action!” Unfortunately you cannot bring in a bunch of volunteers when roads are blocked with debris, power lines are downed with live wires, structures are at risk of collapsing further, and there is the need to document and photograph property damage for claims purposes. Although there were several injuries, it is truly miraculous that there were no fatalities.
The aftermath of this very concentrated disaster are felt by YES!. Our classroom in the East New Orleans Regional Library was taken over by FEMA almost immediately following the tornado. The aforementioned students’ education has been put on hold until further notice, but she hopes to return in April and has since asked if there is any homework she could do in the meantime. In addition to her, another student’s home was also damaged (See before and after photos of New Orleans East). These are just two of our Main Library students affected. At this time, it is unclear how many of our New Orleans East students are affected.
This brings me to what lingers in the back of my mind when thinking about the students who come through YES!—what brought them here? Hurricane Katrina and Rita disrupted the education of an entire city and changed the school system indefinitely. Students relocated or jumped around to new schools and communities, some of which were unfamiliar or unwelcoming. For those who returned to New Orleans, schools closed and never reopened. Unsurprisingly, those in poverty were the most affected. The consequences of this period of time are becoming increasingly apparent over a decade later. “Many of the Americans who today lack both jobs and diplomas may have been Katrina-era adolescents, who often suffered such high levels of trauma and instability that learning became nearly impossible” (Reckdahl). I highly encourage reading Reckdahl’s article The Lost Children of Katrina to gain some insight. As researchers have learned, it is difficult to track down Katrina-era students in addition to measuring the impact Katrina had on their education and future.
Disasters like Katrina and the New Orleans East tornado are only drops in the bucket of how students “slip through the cracks.” Much can be said about the systems that were and are in place, but that’s further down the rabbit hole than I want to go in this post. 🙂 😦
PS On a different note: Mardi Gras was spectacular!