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September 1, 2006
Vol. 64
No. 1

Leading in the Worst of Times

The town was under water. Fifteen hundred people were trapped on the high school's second floor. Here's what one determined group of educators did to manage the crisis and help rebuild a community.

On Monday, August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina and the floodwaters from the breeched levees destroyed all 14 schools in Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish. Not one inhabitable building remained in the community, which is located 15 miles east of New Orleans. Most of the 67,000 residents had been evacuated before the hurricane hit—except for 1,500 men, women, and children who rode out the storm in Chalmette High School.
Superintendent Doris Voitier worked alongside school principal Wayne Warner and former assistant principal Cookie Mundt to open the school as a refuge of last resort. They stockpiled supplies and prepared to take a census of the names, next of kin, phone numbers, and health concerns of every parish resident who sought shelter there.
“There were married couples, extended families with children, and older people with no families,” Warner recalled. “And the sick and disabled, and people who had no means or no transportation to go anywhere else.” On Sunday night, when the outer bands of the storm arrived, the electricity went out, and the backup generator failed.
“The night was long, and the storm was intense,” said Warner. “We could hear the roof being torn off from parts of the building. Some windows were blown out, and the rain was coming in. We saw the roof fly off the elementary school across the street. As the storm subsided, we believed that we had survived the worst. Little did we know.”
On Monday, water appeared outside the school windows. Soon, the water inside the school was five and one-half feet high. “It was a mixture of marsh bottom, mud, oil, gasoline, fish, and grass,” said the principal. “It came with a strong current and invaded every ground-floor room.”
The school leadership team quickly moved the sick and disabled upstairs, along with the other evacuees. More and more people began to arrive at the high school. Some swam to the shelter; others were rescued from their rooftops and arrived in boats.
Amid the chaos of getting the evacuees to the second floor and with the rising toxic floodwaters lapping at the bottom of the staircase, everyone realized that most of the provisions were lost. They would need to ration water. For the next two and a half days, each person got less than a half cup of water daily, with a small amount of cereal or a bit of jelly on bread.
The floodwaters had risen so quickly that boats now docked at the edge of the walkway covering, and people walked on top of it to reach shelter. Inside, a woman gave birth; she was evacuated by helicopter. Two brothers were on ventilators, and the batteries were dying. Dialysis patients and diabetics needed immediate medical attention. Moreover, unbeknown to the officials at the high school, rescue teams were bringing boatloads of people to the school's gymnasium, which the high flood waters had separated from the main building. The water around the school had risen to eight feet. Almost 1,500 people were trapped on the second floor.
On Tuesday, Superintendent Voitier left, finally, to start work on rebuilding efforts for the school district. Conditions further deteriorated as the high school baked in the ferocious August heat. None of the bathrooms worked, and the stench was overwhelming. On Wednesday, the sickest people were evacuated by boat. On Thursday, more left by boat as others walked out in waist-high toxic water. On Friday, five days after the storm, when all the evacuees were finally gone, Warner and Mundt left Chalmette High, together with 21 other members of the local community. They climbed into three small boats, eventually hot-wired an abandoned school bus, and drove to a parish that had sustained less damage, in a 13-hour journey that would normally have taken about two hours.

Just Where Do You Start?

Before Hurricane Katrina, St. Bernard Parish was financially secure and academically thriving. District scores were above the state average. But how does a school system begin to rebuild itself when all the homes and businesses in the community have been damaged? What happens when policies, practices, rules, and regulations no longer apply?
Superintendent Voitier understood that the school district would need to play an important role in rebuilding the community. She focused on short-term goals and planned for long-term results. Her initial concern was for the financial security of her staff members. She made sure that their health insurance was paid and that paychecks would be issued for August and September.
The superintendent looked to the federal government for support and direction, but soon realized that FEMA would be of no help. Federal officials had suggested that they could bring in modular buildings to serve as a temporary school, but not until March. Education services were needed immediately, however, because many people engaged in the clean-up were ready to bring their families back home.
As soon as it was feasible, the superintendent returned to St. Bernard Parish with her assistant superintendent, Bev Lawrason. They visited the parish's 14 school sites, which had served 8,800 students. Every school had been flooded, some were irreparably damaged, and some no longer existed. “Where do you get the funding? How do you get the schools cleaned up? Are people really coming back?” asked Voitier.
The superintendent demonstrated imagination, hope, courage, and realistic optimism when she made the decision to take out a large loan to keep the school system functioning. She also contracted with a company in North Carolina to deliver modular classrooms. Within three and one-half weeks, the leadership team put a school together. In addition, Voitier bought 80 trailers for teachers and staff to live in so they could work in the new, unified school.
Many jobs were lost, but new ones, such as Donations Coordinator, were created. Voitier developed a leadership team that established a plan of action that everyone supported. Eleven weeks after the hurricane, Voitier, Lawrason, and a small group of committed school district employees opened a PreK–12 school in portable trailers on the parking lot of Chalmette High. On November 14, 2005, 334 students attended their first day of school.

Incredible Challenges

One immediate concern was giving students hot meals. FEMA wanted to provide sandwiches and prepackaged meals. “We said no,” explained Voitier. “We told them that this might be the only hot meal these kids get all day. We managed to provide those hot meals day after day. It was labor-intensive and very difficult.”
During the first week, a former restaurant owner catered the school meals from a barge in the middle of the Mississippi River. The school then created a makeshift kitchen in the administration building, and students ate in a tent set up in the parking lot. The district hired a quick-turnaround contractor to rebuild the cafeteria and other parts of Chalmette High by January 2006.
The red tape of FEMA, OSHA, and the insurance companies failed to intimidate Superintendent Voitier and her leadership team in the days, weeks, and months to come. They kept the immediate goals foremost in mind as they continued to plan for the future and for “best-case outcomes” for the district (Patterson & Kelleher, 2005).
One of the biggest challenges that the superintendent and her leadership team faced was the loss of teachers and support staff. Before Hurricane Katrina, the school district was the largest employer in St. Bernard Parish, with 1,200 employees. In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, that number plummeted to 100. Since then, the district has rehired some former employees and has held job fairs to hire additional teachers as more and more students return.
Former principals and supervisors from the schools that have not reopened have been teaching in classrooms, and all employees, including the superintendent, took a 25 percent pay cut. Some teachers now work until 6:00 p.m. in the after-school program.

...And Impossible Odds

Superintendent Voitier and her leadership team, together with teachers and support staff, are rebuilding the school district in the face of impossible odds. There are no funds available to operate the school district, to rebuild the schools, and to replace buses, books, and every other piece of equipment that a school system needs to operate, from refrigeration units to computers. Moreover, there are few homes to generate property taxes and few businesses to generate sales taxes. Two mini-marts, two gas stations, and a Walgreens have been supporting the parish.
FEMA will pick up 90 percent of the costs to replace what has been lost. For example, a $500 donation becomes a $5,000 donation in terms of the federal match. However, the school district must pick up the remaining 10 percent, and that is problematic for the St. Bernard school system. “All the funding formulas presuppose that you have a local tax base in place and that you have an infrastructure,” Voitier explained. “But we have neither, so funding is woefully inadequate.”
There is also the trauma and the toxicity of stress. Hurricane Katrina has left behind a deep sense of loss in St. Bernard Parish. Families have lived in this rural parish for generations, and people care about one another. Surrounded by the storm's devastation, the families that remain have sustained terrible losses. They are also distressed that so many family members and friends have left.
School administrators, teachers, and staff have also experienced personal losses as a result of the hurricane. Many have lost their homes, some have lost family members, and nearly everyone has lost friends, who are now scattered across the United States. And every day, 20–40 more students register for school. Each one arrives with a story. It will take some of the students years to recover from these traumatic events.
By the end of December 2005, 1,036 students were enrolled. By February 2006, enrollment exceeded 1,600. By early April, almost 2,300 students were back attending classes. This past August, enrollment rose to 3,000, with two schools in session. Most of the returning students live in tents or trailers; some live in garages converted to living spaces or on the second floor of their flood-damaged homes. About 30 percent of the students commute into the parish from towns as far as Baton Rouge, 80 miles away.
Despite the difficulties, people are glad to see that the school is back in operation. Remembering the first day of school after the storm, one staff member remarked, “This was the first time I saw smiles on the faces of the people in St. Bernard.” The teachers are working hard to meet the students' needs, and parents are grateful.

The Best of Leadership in the Worst of Times

The determination and capabilities of the district leadership team in meeting these overwhelming challenges provide insights into the complexity of an effective emergency response to a catastrophic event. Research on the acute and long-term effects of mass trauma suggests that family and community support immediately following a catastrophic event are more crucial initially to a healthy recovery than are individual psychological interventions (Taylor & Yamasaki, 2005; Shalev, Tuval-Mashiach, & Hadar, 2004).
Superintendent Voitier and her team provided just this kind of support. Rebuilding the school has given the children and their families a sense of stability. But administrators, teachers, and support staff have done more than just reestablish a school district: By rebuilding a school, they are helping to reestablish a community.

Patterson, J., & Kelleher, P. (2005, February). Optimism in the face of the storm. The School Administrator, 62(2), 10–15.

Shalev, A. Y., Tuval-Mashiach, R., & Hadar, H. (2004). Posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of mass trauma. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 65, 4–10.

Taylor, D. & Yamasaki, T. (2005). The Kate Middleton Elementary School: Stories of Hope and Courage. New York: Scholastic Press.

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