When Moving Too Quickly Fails: On Supporting Communities During Disasters


When Moving Too Quickly Fails: On Supporting Communities During Disasters

By Patrick Dobard, CEO, New Schools for New Orleans

A Note from NACSA: We are fortunate to have Patrick Dobard as a NACSA board member. His wisdom and thought partnership are invaluable. When schools began shuttering due to COVID-19, many of us struggled to remember a time when there were so many closures and so much uncertainty. While not completely analogous, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina came up multiple times. Patrick served with grace and strong leadership in many roles critical to New Orleans after the storm, and we felt his lessons learned would be beneficial to authorizers at this time. He did not disappoint.

In New Orleans, we know both crisis and resilience. And we also know this: in moments of disaster, people want to help. First responders go right to the source of the challenge and work to ensure public safety. Communities spring into action, too, which is a beautiful instinct. It is admirable and important.

After Hurricane Katrina, though, I learned a crucial lesson. When we take action in disasters, we cannot rush, no matter how tempting it is. We must make decisions with a clear mind. Slow and steady is better than fast and full of mistakes.

In September 2005, I was the state official responsible for coordinating all the donations the nation was pouring into Louisiana. We received generously from the American people, who were seeing images of New Orleans on the news and wanting desperately to help. They saw people being displaced, homes and schools being flooded.

Unfortunately, sometimes that generosity did not match what we needed. People sent old desks and computers, and outdated textbooks we could not use in schools. We had winter coats in the summer heat. We had so many clothes and supplies, but we did not yet have the infrastructure to distribute them. Eighteen-wheelers were coming into Baton Rouge with donations, but that volume slowed our capacity to connect people with these resources.

What we needed, frankly, was funding. People had a strong emotional reaction to seeing waterlogged textbooks on TV, but sending us old textbooks did not help us; we needed money to buy the new supplies our children deserved.

If I could go back in time, I would tell people to wait. I would tell them to listen to what communities say they need. I would tell them to hang on while we figure out the most efficient, effective way to help. Now, facing this new crisis of the spreading COVID-19, we must do just that. When I think about how the lessons I learned after Hurricane Katrina apply today, I see three main ideas. I shared them with NASCA last week, and I will elaborate on them here:

  • Communicate clearly and carefully: Be accurate and efficient with what you say. Right now, we are all getting a lot of information about the response to COVID-19. Some of it is valuable. Some of it is less valuable. Some of it is outright false. It is critical that, if we are in a position to share our thoughts with others, we do so carefully. We can sort through the noise and help people hear what is most important.
  • Listen before acting: Our schools will tell us what they need; we do not need to decide for them. Every school’s priority is their students, but they will have different ways they want to support them, and different tasks they choose to take on first.
  • Do not rush: We need not compound disaster with human error. Our instinct is, of course, to act quickly, fueled by emotions. We must hold on and work from thoughtful, strategic consideration, not impulse. Rushing wastes our time, and moving with purpose ends up saving it.

So far, New Schools for New Orleans, the organization I lead, has tried to do just that. We have been asking schools how we can help and hearing them. We have been stepping back and strategizing, not simply jumping into action. As a result, we have been able to take action that responds directly to the needs of our schools.

We are amplifying the great work of others and sharing resources through our newsletter for food access, mental health supports, and more. We have provided links to organizations that have asked for monetary donations or specific supplies. We have shared distance learning and curricular resources with school leaders. We have been working closely with the school district on policy surrounding the response to COVID-19 school closures, and securing funding to directly support schools.

As we share and bolster the resources our community provides, we feel great hope. New Orleans has come together in this moment. People are practicing social distancing. School leaders and teachers are developing powerful ways to educate students from afar. District leadership is supporting that through the coordination of meals and the purchase of hotspots. We have seen encouraging videos from our education community (like this, from our local superintendent, and this, from school leaders at Bethune Elementary Charter School) that help us stay grounded and calm.

We will make it through this. If we stick together (while physically apart), listen to each other, and resist the desire to rush to action, we will be able to support our students in ways that keep them safe, help them learn, and provide some stability in these unstable times.