The U.S. Department of Education has announced that as of June 30, some 130,000 students from our part of the world are enrolling in schools in other places. Hurricane Katrina is primarily to blame, of course, and to a lesser degree, Hurricane Rita. The largest number of the relocated displaced students–47,862–are in other parts of our own state of Louisiana.
Texas–God bless ’em!–has taken in 37,168 students, followed by Mississippi with 15,890 and Georgia with 7,691. Alabama shows 5,065 students, Florida shows 3,198, Tennessee 2,687, Arkansas 1,937, and North Carolina 1,040. After that, the numbers drop quickly. Several hundred each now reside in California, Colorado, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, Arizona, Michigan, New York, Maryland, and South Carolina. States with the fewest include West Virginia with 12, Montana 13, Idaho 7, and North Dakota 1. Hawaii shows zero. Even Alaska has 36 students.
A headline for the lengthy newspaper article covering this relocation reads: “Even some star N.O. pupils struggle elsewhere.” I think it’s safe to say there’s a whole lot of struggling going on, as school districts throughout the nation work to find ways to make room for our students. If it is indeed true that our schools were among the poorest in the nation, it doesn’t take much imagination to realize our students will have trouble adjusting in better districts.
Anyone who ever moved as a child and had to adjust to another school with all that implies–new teachers, subjects, books, classmates, neighborhoods, social structure–knows how difficult such a transition can be under the best of circumstances. Children are so vulnerable at these times, and other children can ease the pain or make it unbearable. When I was 7, we moved from rural Alabama to the coal fields of West Virginia, then four years later reversed the process. Each move was as traumatic as the other. My heart goes out to these children, and we extend our deep appreciation for teachers, principals, and school boards throughout the nation who are receiving these kids and trying to make this transition work.
The City of New Orleans is limping along with a partial staff. Five years ago, the Department of Public Works showed 346 employees; today, they have 86. At that time, the city had 129 street maintenance workers; today 14. The cost to repair the streets in this city today is pegged at $1.7 billion, of which only $60 million is available.
The lack of city income means fewer staff numbers in some very crucial areas. This week a panel of business leaders gave the city an ultimatum. Get more employees in the Departments for City Planning and Safety and Permits or risk losing some major construction projects. Donald Trump himself is planning a Poydras Street hotel and a condominium tower, yet it is being delayed as a result of understaffing in various city departments. Forty employees are required in the City Planning Commission, yet only nine work there now, down from 25 before Katrina. “At this rate, the city cannot be rebuilt,” said an architect. City Council members seem properly concerned and committed to solving the problem, yet are having difficulty finding money to fund the positions.
It’s the old “chicken versus the egg” question: which comes first? If we had the money, we could hire these workers and issue those permits and build those buildings. If we do, the money will come in. If we do not hire the workers and issue the permits, the construction will go away and we will never dig ourselves out of this hole.
In the wonderful old radio program of my childhood, whenever this kind of quandry appeared, Clark Kent would assess the situation, then muse out loud, “Hmmm. This looks like a case for Superman!” The music would pump up and the whishing sound of the man of steel cutting through the air would signal that all was about to be set straight. In our situation, New Orleans looks like a case for leadership. Mayor Nagin, where are you?
Meanwhile, one block west of New Orleans, Jefferson Parish is seeing its tax coffers overflow. Revenue for May was up over the same month 2005 by 39 percent. Jefferson Parish’s schools are bursting at the seams, too. They’re anticipating 8,000 more students this fall–school starts in just two or three weeks–than were in class last Spring. The population of the parish is topping out at 443,000, more than 30,000 above January’s number.
All the up-and-running parishes around New Orleans are reporting video poker revenue greater than for the same period last year, with Jefferson Parish showing a 50 percent jump. The front page in Saturday’s paper interviews owners of local bars who indicate that the money is not coming from tourists so much as from regulars who are gambling more. One player told the reporter, “These things are addictive, that’s all I can say.” (Someone make a note of that.) Tax revenue from poker machines state-wide is up by a whopping 17 percent, and that’s with 714 fewer machines than pre-K. Some attribute the increase to the influx of construction workers. “Their families aren’t here,” one official said. “So they gamble.”
Here’s a poll that must be taken with a grain of salt. Harvard University took a telephone survey this month of 2,029 residents of coastal states living within 50 miles of the shorelines. A strong 24 percent said they would ignore orders to evacuate in the face of another hurricane. Two-thirds said they would evacuate if ordered, and half said they have done so in the past. The grain of salt which I’m prescribing has to do with residents of this metropolitan area. Let any size hurricane take aim at us in the next year or two, and you’ll find this city a ghost town. The people unable to leave no longer live here or died the last time. The rest of us need no convincing.
Senator John Kerry has been in town this week. He and Sen. Mary Landrieu spoke at the National Black Chamber of Commerce convention which met at the W Hotel downtown. Kerry was outspoken in decrying the slow pace of recovery of this city. “Too much of New Orleans looks like it’s being treated like a Third World nation,” he said.
A group of nurses from the ICU of Memorial Medical Center, the old Baptist Hospital, registered their displeasure on Saturday’s editorial page. The two nurses charged with murder in the deaths of four invalid patients after Katrina were “our most outstanding critical care nurses.” “Their integrity is above reproach.” “They are the type of nurse that made Baptist Hospital a great hospital.” Another writer, Betty Barnes of Metairie, feels Attorney General Foti brought the charges against Dr. Anna Pou and the two nurses because he “probably wants to run for a higher political position, so he’s trying to make a big splash on the evening news and go for the headlines.”
Contrast that with a letter in Friday’s paper from Cory Turner of New Orleans. “I find it troubling that some members of the local medical profession are rallying behind Dr. Anna Maria Pou and her purported death squad. Instead of commending criminal activity, (they) should be…condemning any alleged murderous practices….”
Columnist Jarvis DeBerry, who can always be counted on for keen insights into local situations, goes back to an incident that occurred in Ohio before the Civil War, an event novelist Toni Morrison memorialized in her book, “Beloved.” A pregnant mother was fleeing slavery and, while in the process of crossing the frozen Ohio River, the slave catchers caught up to her. In her desperation and determination not to let her children experience the life she had known in bondage, she took a butcher knife and began decapitating the head of her two-year-old daughter. She tried but failed to kill her other three children, and had to be held to keep from committing suicide.
Someone asked Toni Morrison if this woman–Margaret Garner in real life, Sethe in the novel–had done the right thing. The author said, “It was the right thing to do, but she had no right to do it.”
DeBerry concludes that we have yet to be shown the evidence that Dr. Pou and the nurses killed the four patients, but “even if it’s proved that they willfully killed the four, there might exist a fair amount of sympathy for them.” Sympathy because of the terrible circumstances, including the lack of facilities, the overwhelming heat, the flood outside, the roving gangs in the neighborhood, and the likelihood that no help would be coming for many days.
The one group they will get no sympathy from is the family and loved ones of the four who died. Whether it was the right thing to do or not is one question, but in either case, they had no right to do it.
If they did.