Tag Archives: Katrina

Horrible Storms… Exotic Names

Television coverage of Hurricane Ike has dominated the airwaves in the last several days, just as it had with Hurricane Gustav a few weeks ago and Katrina three years before that.  I watched the coverage through the same lens that many Americans do:  With a prayer for the people enduring the crisis and an occasional inward glance… speculating on what I might do if the winds were coming to my neighborhood and the authorities recommended evacuation.    

Horrible storms.  Exotic names. 

It’s so easy to be cavalier when your only experience with a Category 3 tropical storm is watching those ridiculous clips of obscure CNN news reporters being blown across an abandoned interstate in the face of the howling gale.

The truth is I have been evacuated once– and packed once– for the Southern California counterpart to hurricane season.  In 2004, the October wild fires burned through our canyons and 50 feet from our driveway.  We spent exactly one day at our in-laws.  (Then I decided I would rather take my chances breathing acrid and lung-clogging ash that hung in the air like wet cotton– than spend another minute watching local fire coverage with my in-laws!  So we skirted the police barricades and went home.)

Both the 2004 and 2007 wildfires caused my school to be closed for a week.  The school itself was never in danger, but the community was deeply impacted.  Teachers and family members lost their homes all across the county.  

And it makes you think:  As a principal… am I prepared to lead my school… with 1000 children, 100 staff members, and countless daily volunteers and visitors–  through a full-scale catastrophic emergency?

Like all schools we have the boilerplate “Disaster Preparedness Plan”.  We have done the obligatory disaster drills complete with Search and Rescue simulations and teachers chirping because they “got stuck on the Sanitation Team and Ms. Agnew– who has never even been a life guard–  gets to be on the First Aid Team.”

“I think this is proof that you just don’t see my leadership potential, Dr. Riley.”

Sears used to sell green trash cans filed to the brim with earthquake tools: batteries and flashlights, shovels and axes, name tags, caution tape and first aid kits.  Just as those CNN reporters leave that lasting visual memory of the televised storm (red jackets flapping and ballcaps pulled tight to their ears “I …can’t hear….you…  Anderson….  the….  wind is now…..lifting me….  off the ground….”  ) —  so too do I have the memory of Ms. Ingersoll– an otherwise classy veteran 5th grade teacher– patrolling up and down the hallways with a hatchet and an ill-fitting yellow hard hat–  searching for survivors.  

She never found any.  

My school sits on the side of Interstate 5.  We have ghoulishly inventoried all of the potential crises that could happen at any moment as we sit surrounded by freeways and major thoroughfares: firestorms, helicopter crashes, poisonous gas wafting across the playground from truck or train accidents, terrorist attacks on the nearby naval base, snipers, Africanized honey bees (hey don’t laugh… swarms of bees fly across our playground every Spring!) And of course… the feared shifting of the Rose Canyon fault.  We are even prepared for Tsunamis.

We have bells and signals and codes and plans for a whole host of potential disasters.  

But am I ready to lead through a crisis?  Are you?

In nearly 20 years as a school administrator I have only been tested once. Back in 1996, A 5th grade student at my school in Solana Beach decided to remove the brakes from his bicycle.  Then one Friday afternoon he decided to ignore the direction he had just received from a parking lot supervisor who told him to walk his bike off campus. Instead, he coasted down the steep hill next to our parking lot that flowed out onto Loma Santa Fe at 3:30 in the afternoon.  And on the way down the hill, he took a jab at a classmate who was  innocently walking along the sidewalk.  And in the effort to needle his classmate, he lost control of his bike and shot out into the on-coming traffic like a nightmare rocket spinning wildly off course. Loma Santa Fe is 400 lanes of cars moving at the speed of Southern California commuters who just want to be home.  Our guy didn’t have a chance.  He slammed into the side of a bus and suffered catastrophic head injury.  

I remember kneeling at his side with a nurse who happened to pull over to assist him.  He wasn’t breathing well.  As Life Flight flew overhead looking for a place to land, we climbed inside his bike that had exploded on impact and whispered to him while the nurse began CPR.  “It’s ok, buddy.  We’re going to help you. We’re here to help you.”

Long after the paramedics had loaded him into Life Flight and taken him away, children and police and curious on-lookers were still examining the accident scene.  The deep red pool of blood had already started to harden and dry in the street.  And on the knees of my pants.  In my office I debriefed with office staff. Everyone had remained calm.  Everyone swung into action to manage the students, keep traffic flowing, contact paramedics and the superintendent’s office.  Many staff members did what they thought needed to be done to protect all our students.  In the end, we attributed our reaction to the recent Disaster Plan simulation– to Ms. Ingersol and her yellow construction hat and how earnestly she looked for make-believe victims of a make-believe earthquake.  Perhaps that simulation had just saved a child’s life.

So I learned from a 5th grader’s late afternoon collision with a city bus that sometimes disaster plans morph from simulations into real events.  And that if adults are prepared… their instincts will do the rest. 

And I learned that you can NEVER be prepared to hold a child who is dying in your arms. (10 years later, and I am still here writing about it, thinking about it– agonizing over it:  “Was there something I could have done to prevent that accident?”)  

And I learned that leading through a crisis is one of those “other duties as assigned.”  (Have you ever seen it listed in a job description?)  

And I learned that the simulated disaster and full scale practice drill– if nothing else–  is good for parent confidence, student amusement, and staff esprit de corps.  

And I learned that they damn well better be prepared where my own kids go to school.

And I learned from watching the Katrina response that we will not necessarily be able to count on outside help in the wake of a large scale emergency.  We will have to survive on our wits and our commitment and our preparation. 

And I learned that when you lead a school through a crisis you have to keep leading long after that crisis recedes, long after the CNN storm reporters find their feet again, long after the ash is swept up from lunch tables and rooftop air conditioners– long after the blood stains in the street are washed away.

And I learned that you have to lead through the healing too.

(Simultaneously posted at http://www.leadertalk.org/)

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I thought Las Vegas was crazy, but it is nothing compared to the French Quarter in New Orleans.  Now granted, there are a lot more people in Vegas and you could fit the entire French Quarter in the lobby of one of the mega-casinos on the Strip… but you cannot deny the authenticity and music and culture of Bourbon Street.  

I returned home this afternoon from the 8th Annual National Charter Schools Conference that was held in NOLA. While I was there, I learned some stuff about the Voodoo Queen, and Preservation Hall, and Cajun cooking, and an historic old city that has slowly risen from the destruction of Katrina.  

I noticed that the local people talked about Katrina everywhere and I wondered if they are aware of how deeply scarred some of their neighbors are.  I overheard a young waitress tell a co-worker that she still feels traumatized and that she thinks she needs therapy.  Her co-worker just laughed at her.  “Try spending three nights on a bridge like I did.”  

I think they both need therapy and they are not alone.  Virtually every article in the local section of the Times-Picayune this morning mentioned Katrina at some point: like the story about the lady who is suing a couple in Texas because they rescued her dog “Jazz” and now they don’t want to give her back.  During the crisis the Texas couple wanted to help so they agreed to be foster parents to displaced animals.  They took in Jazz, renamed her “Hope” and then got real attached to her.  Meanwhile, her original owner dried out the house, recovered what possessions she could and then started to look for Jazz.  She never gave up hope that she would find Jazz and bring her home.

The truth is Jazz probably doesn’t care what her name is or where she lives as long as it is with these humans that will go to extraordinary lengths to love her.  And as long as the floodwaters don’t carry her away again. 

There is probably a metaphor in there somewhere to apply to the National Charter Schools Conference.  Or maybe not.  

Maybe it’s enough to just say we can learn something, every day, about resiliency and post-traumatic stress disorder and how these events outside of school profoundly affect children. And maybe we should listen to our kids when they tell us that they are in crisis and that they hurt inside and they don’t even know why. ”After all,” the waitress said, “that damn flood happened three years ago!” And maybe when our dog floats away we should just go find her. In looking for Jazz…we might find Hope.

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