Hurricane Katrina Lessons for COVID-19

All of us, in one way or another, have been affected by the COVID-19 crisis — whether it’s shifting the way we work, changing the services we provide communities, adapting how we connect with friends and family, or experiencing the loss of loved ones. It hasn’t been easy.

As part of a WKKF Community Leadership Network virtual gathering (that was originally planned as an in-person gathering in New Orleans), fellows with the New Orleans cohort talked about how they’re tackling this challenge head on. Their can-do spirit is perhaps best encapsulated in what The Very Reverend Bill Terry shared as part of the opening: “We are worth what we are willing to share with others.”

Deirdre Johnson Burel, who was a part of the first fellowship class and is now a program officer at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, facilitated the panel discussion. Panelists included Patrick Young, director of training for the New Orleans Business Alliance; Myrialis King, CEO of Community Academies of New Orleans; and Judy Reese Morse, president and CEO of the Urban League of Louisiana; as well as comments from Troy Glover, New Orleans director at the Center for Employment Opportunities, and Joshua Cox, senior advisor and director for strategic initiatives for New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell.

The panel opened with everyone watching “Come Home,” featuring spoken word artist Frederick Hollywood Della Hussain. Panelists shared their thoughts on the city they call home, how COVID-19 is impacting their work, and how experiences with Hurricane Katrina can provide insight into navigating the current pandemic.

What did watching the short film “Come Home” evoke for you?

Patrick: For me, it brought up a lot of emotions. I know a lot of the people and places in the video. I always hear that call to come home. I hear the call of my grandmother, “Where you been Pa.” I hear the call of my neighbor, “How you doing my people.” There are so many different ways people greet you in New Orleans. You go other places but don’t feel that same love you do here. There is work to do here so I’m always called home to do the work here.

Myrialis: I’m originally from Puerto Rico. I’m an army brat and went to seven different high schools. I wasn’t able to choose where I was born, but I’ve been able and blessed to choose where I call home, and that’s definitely New Orleans. This video reminds of everything that makes our beautiful city amazing. There is no place like it. There is so much work to do, yet there is so much love, community, and family.

Troy: That’s one of my favorite videos in the world. Every time I watch that video I get super emotional. To be able to survive New Orleans and still love New Orleans is what that video speaks to for me. You see the pain, love and culture all in one place. That really summarizes how I feel about that video and about New Orleans.

What are the major issues in your sector with the COVID-19 pandemic and innovations in response?

Patrick: I work in the economic development sector. Money is the biggest concern, and trying to figure out what everything is going to cost.

I’m proud that my organization, New Orleans Business Alliance, was the first in the city to launch a Gig Economy Relief Fund to pay musicians, artists, Uber drivers, and others who depend on visitors each and every day. We have a big tourist economy in New Orleans, and so many people were immediately laid off. We’ve provided well over $1 million to those people most impacted. We’ve also been doing trainings throughout the city to put people to work in cleaning and sanitation.

So many people are hurting. People don’t want to hear what you can’t do. They want to see what you can do. That’s where we’ve been strong, showing we can make it through this – being able to adjust, communicate and deliver.

I think the conversation is going to shift toward raising minimum wage, making the city more affordable, and exposing economic disparities that we’ve always seen. But we can’t just see them anymore, we have to ensure we’re doing something about them.

Myrialis: The challenge with education is equity and access. This notion of distance learning speaks to the digital divide. At the Community Academies of New Orleans, we did a survey the week before we closed and found that only 30 percent had access to technology, which meant that a vast majority did not. Our schools are a microcosm of the rest of the city.

We had to think outside of the box about how we could support all of our families. Schools across the city came together to develop plans to continue the learning. This included packets and checking in with every family via Google Hangouts, Facebook Live, Instagram Live, and phone calls. With support from foundations and the community, the district also bought Chromebooks and hotspots to serve the entire city. Every family has technology in their home but it’s not one-to-one access.

Our community has a lot of food insecurity. It’s a major concern, and so we quickly worked to open up sites across the city, under the summer feeding program, to ensure families could be fed. We’ve also been taking donations to create food boxes for families, particularly immigrant families who don’t have school sites around them.

I know what it’s like to have school be the safe space. It’s what drives our work in education. Right now, so many kids have lost that safe space, and this has compounded trauma for our kids and families. We’ve been working to implement trauma-informed programs in our schools and expand across the city. And now we’re looking at ways to do that remotely, such as webinars.

Judy: At the Urban League, we’ve had to do what we coined “the pandemic pivot.” We had to quickly shift to meet the needs of all our participants and clients. We’ve been able to virtually transfer a lot of what we do. For instance, we’ve been holding virtual job fairs to match interested job seekers with employers hiring in essential industries. Several other urban league affiliates across the country are now using the model we developed.

We’ve worked with small businesses in a huge way to help them understand everything that is needed to apply for payroll protection and emergency disaster funding as quickly as possible. Because we know funding runs out. We also serve parents. We run a Head Start Center in New Orleans and a parent information center. We’ve worked to make sure parents have the information they need to become experts in distance learning.

On the policy side, we’ve focused on the issues that need to be considered to reopen, reform and recover. For example, we learned from Katrina that small businesses were completely left out from disaster benefits. With emergency procurements, we need to make sure small businesses have the opportunity to compete, as well as have the resources to hire people and scale up to meet new market needs.

We’ve outlined this and a number of issues in our essential strategies document, from public health security and COVID-19 testing to fresh food initiatives and rental and utility assistance programs to hazard pay and raising the minimum wage. We have a seat on the governor’s COVID-19 health equity task force. We are laying a good foundation to address these issues, and I’m optimistic we’ll get through this together.

What insights does our experience with Hurricane Katrina lend us for navigating this pandemic?

Patrick: My Katrina experience was a lot different. I was incarcerated during Katrina. One of the tragedies that is never talked about is the prison population in the emergency situation and just how inhumane that system is. There was no electricity, no water, no exposure to the bathroom. It was a really hard time. You had to find a way to live in the moment. Think through it. Push through it. Incarceration prepared me to understand this situation we’re in now.

After Katrina, prisoners were brought in to do a lot of the work – clearing roads, rebuilding homes. But once you’re out, you can’t get a job. This economic disparity led to me to the work I’m in now. We have to lift and remove such discriminatory practices so formerly incarcerated people have the opportunity to come home and rebuild themselves economically.

Judy: We learned during Katrina how critical it is for community to be at table when decisions are being made. I think the best example now – and it’s a golden opportunity if industry leaders see it as such – is as the hospitality industry pivots and almost reinvents itself to be sure our culture bearers are participating in those discussions.

The truth is we know why folks love New Orleans, it’s the people. So, it’s critical they be at the table. First of all, they probably have the innovative answers and the solutions to what is necessary. And from a pure business sense, I would have them at the table.

We have to remember what we learned from Katrina and be very strong and bold in the positions we take as we move through this disaster.

As resources come into the city and the state, what is being implemented to make sure they get to the people?

Judy: The Urban League’s workforce development office has been working closely with the Louisiana Workforce Commission to make sure people have the information they need to file for unemployment insurance. On the small business side, we’re working with businesses to apply for federal funding available, and where there are procurement opportunities, make sure they have access to compete.

Joshua: One of the lessons learned from Katrina is it’s hard for people to figure out the maze of federal and state funding – where do I go, do I qualify. At the City of New Orleans, we’re creating a navigator system so that people can go to a person in their neighborhood who has been trained and who has resources backing them. It’s neighbors helping neighbors – whether it’s getting personal protective equipment (PPE) or learning about a tax incentive. We want to make sure people in the city get every single cent they are entitled.

A second focus is how do we use the stimulus to help people pivot out of careers that really haven’t served them or the city as well as they should. This city has been run on hospitality. To be frank, workers haven’t gotten a fair, livable shake. Hospitality has been dealt a serious blow with this pandemic. Our whole economy’s going to have to shift to the jobs of the future. And so how do we pay people to train to take on the jobs this economy will need 20 years from now, and not the ones it’s had for the last 25 years. These efforts go hand in hand, helping people get the stimulus they need now to get through the crisis, while also thinking forward to where they want to go.

Myrialis: I’m going to bring it back to the children. It’s not about me, it’s not about you, it’s about the children. Schools have historically been safe spaces for children. We learned that through Katrina as well. We will continue to make sure our kids are safe, taken care of, and that they are well through this crisis.

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WKKF Community Leadership Network