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Special Report

The Best-Laid Plans: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

Mary Ellen Flannery

Stirred by Hurricane Katrina’s screaming winds, the water rose higher and higher, filling cubbies, soaking pages, shoving desks free from their rows, and eventually lapping across the roof of St. Martin Upper School in Biloxi, Mississippi.

When student teacher Sindi Holman returned to her classroom a few weeks later, she realized that almost nothing could be salvaged.

Walls had collapsed, black mold had tracked everywhere, and decades’ worth of lesson supplies and materials had been swept away.

So, you can imagine how Holman, then a William Carey College student and a Gulfport native, felt.  Not only had many Gulf Coast landmarks in her personal memory been erased, so had her plans for the immediate future.

She had counted on a full semester’s worth of work with the fourth-graders at St. Martin. Instead, Katrina swept through and left Holman in its aftermath: desperately hunting through a mess of stinking debris, looking for her must-have folder of lesson plans, which she left on the classroom’s (now missing) windowsill, knowing it couldn’t possibly have survived the flood. Yet, there it was!

“I was like, ‘Thank you Lord!’ and I dried them out and typed them out,” Holman recalls. And then, like so many of her colleagues in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, she got ready for work again.

When Biloxi’s schools re-opened, about a month after Katrina, Holman joined St. Martin’s students in double sessions at a neighboring, undamaged middle school. And that’s when this student teacher really started to learn about her new profession and its challenges.

Suddenly, her classroom had become a virtual life raft for kids with little security in their lives.

“We decided the best way to get them back on track was to restore some normalcy to their lives,” says Holman. As normal as possible, that is.

“A lot of my assignments using children’s books had to be changed—our library had been wiped out—and I didn’t have a place to get the books,” she says. Dictionaries also were borrowed; notebooks were replaced; and Holman went hunting online for other free resources. “It was a lesson in resourcefulness!” says Holman.

It was also a lesson in collegiality, she adds. Teachers from as far away as Ohio have helped St. Martin to recover, sending more than a thousand new books and other materials, and everybody is helping each other.

Certainly, the whole experience was more harrowing than most student teaching gigs, but it also was rewarding, says Holman. After this, she feels she could tackle almost anything with confidence.

Even if you aren’t living or learning in the Gulf Coast, Student members of NEA have been affected by the images of hurricane destruction. Many Student members from Wisconsin—where they collected donations at a student conference—to Kentucky to North Dakota, have reached out to help with both funds and goodwill.

The Kentucky Education Association Student Program (KEA-SP) already had planned to help poor schools in its home state when Katrina struck. But its leaders were so moved by images of Gulf Coast destruction that they just had to get involved, said KEA's student organizer Charles Main.

KEA-SP President Kayla Davidson, President-Elect Natalie Avant, and Ann Jury, secretary-historian, have organized a campaign to buy interactive Smart Boards and other technology for the hurricane-affected schools. To help, go to , enter the school code KEA-SP-HELPS. Forty percent of the money spent will go to KEA’s effort.

The Student North Dakota Education Association has adopted two schools in Biloxi, Mississippi, where teachers have lost classroom libraries and materials that they've spent decades putting together. Their effort, called Pack the Pack , which refers to the kinds of supplies that fill backpacks, aims to collect $5,000 that Biloxi’s teachers can spend at Office Depot and Gulfport’s School and Carnival Supplies store.

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