By Joan Wodiska
Watching the news on Hurricanes Maria, Irma and Harvey, I can’t help but think back and remember the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita that hit the Gulf Coast states of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Texas in 2005. It was an unprecedented natural disaster too great for anyone person, branch of government or state to solve.
In total, more than 157,000 elementary and secondary students were displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and 49 states opened their hearts and schoolhouse doors to educate children affected. Across the nation, state and local leaders, teachers and volunteers came together to educate children and undertake the difficult and long task for rebuilding schools, communities and lives.
(Left: Juan Rojas, of Queens, N.Y., hugs his 4-year-old grandson Elias Rojas after he and his family they arrived on a flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico.)
At the time, I worked for the nation’s governors and led the effort to coordinate displaced student counts nationwide. Each day, as state leaders sent data, the number of children affected grew and grew and grew. Disasters may move quickly, but it takes time to learn the full damage. Sometime later, along with other state policymakers, we had an opportunity to tour the recovery efforts in New Orleans.
Despite hourly and daily field reports, phone calls and photos, nothing I was told or read prepared me for the reality and devastation wrought by the hurricanes.
Stepping off the bus—it immediately hits the senses. It smells—a mix of mold, decay and fuel.
It is silent. There is an absolute absence of sound. No chirps from birds. No hum of bugs. No buzz of electricity or cars. Nothing. Gone.
In the wake of the Katrina, Congress approved the Hurricane Recovery Education Act and additional supplemental spending bills to financially support states and schools educating displaced students. The George W. Bush administration and U.S. Department of Education, working with other federal agencies, also offered vital regulatory relief and flexibility to states and schools.
As a nation, we learned valuable policy lessons from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. No doubt, government made mistakes. Today, however, states are better prepared to speed assistance to those affected. As highlighted in a recent NCSL Occupational Licensure blog post, states changed occupational licensure laws to allow skilled labor to work in other states. Local, state and federal leaders, working together, also educated children.
For this hurricane season, the U.S. Department of Education is working with other federal agencies, such as FEMA and DHS, to assist students, schools and states. The department has established a website with links to information varying from homelessness to mold remediation to mental health services for trauma.
On Thursday evening, Sept. 21, the U.S. Department of Education also released additional guidance detailing waiver opportunities available for “federally declared disasters” such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. The guidance was distributed to state leaders in the six affected states and territories—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The package covers K-12, career and technical, special education, higher education, Indian education and vocational rehabilitation. And, should this hurricane season continue, or another federally declared natural disaster occur, such as a wildfire or tornado, a federal package is ready for states and schools.
At the end of our visit to New Orleans, we stopped at what appeared to be vacant and abandoned building. It was a school. The surrounding neighborhood was destroyed and deserted. The playground was covered with piles of organized debris – soggy wet furniture, ripped out carpet and flooring, broken tree limbs and trash. Piles and piles of debris.
Once inside, life began to emerge—squeaks, chirps, shuffling shoes, and happy little voices. Children were bustling from class to class, engaged, smiling and learning. There was laughter—so much laughter.
Education transports children to another place. School offers children stability, sanctuary and a sense of normalcy. School also offers hope and a path to rebuild lives.
Hurricanes Harvey and Irma displaced thousands of students. Hurricane Maria is bearing down on our territorial friends.
It will take time to reopen schools. Some schools may remain inoperable, even next fall. The president, Congress, U.S. Department of Education and related federal agencies are vital partners for state and local leaders to educate students affected by natural disasters. Let’s keep working together, as quickly as possible, to bring back the laughter.
Joan Wodiska is senior federal affairs counsel in NCSL's State-Federal Relations Division in Washington, D.C.