This summer, five superintendents of education gathered in a conference room in Washington, D.C. Somewhat nervous to be meeting so far from home, one member admitted that she had never visited the capital before; another had lived in nearby Arlington, Virginia. She and her colleagues formed no ordinary sampling of educators: Each had survived Hurricane Katrina.
Convened by the American Architectural Foundation (AAF), this elite cadre all hailed from the Mississippi Gulf Coast and were attending a School Design Institute, a special iteration of an AAF program called “Great Schools by Design.” The event formed the second gathering for the group, following a larger meeting on their home turf in Gulfport, Mississippi, in February. Intended to improve the quality of educational facilities, the Great Schools program routinely brings together leaders in education, then pairs them with nationally recognized experts who act as advisers in architecture, regulation, and planning—with the hope of advancing innovative new school designs.
The stories that these administrators told, and the images that they showed, presented five distinct dramas. In one case, a superintendent shared images of her school, which remained filled with waterborne debris months after the cataclysmic storm had washed back to sea. Already, she and her board had marshaled resources to purchase a large plot of land on higher ground, but they were filled with questions. Should they sell the original school property located near the Gulf? Where on their new property did it make the most sense to erect a new building, and could they achieve the same sense of community away from the comfortably scaled downtown streets?
Another leader presided over a historic school whose wood-framed plaster walls had soaked up the seawater and filled with mold. Yet FEMA refused to classify the property as a total loss, allotting significantly less than the total cost for repairs. Who could she call for advice? A state historic preservation officer? Could the property be converted to other, more commercially valuable uses? Should it be demolished? And if so, where should the students relocate? Most were currently housed in trailers.
At the conclusion of the day, one lesson stood out: This group of dedicated citizens had been asked to do more than we should expect of public servants. Confronted with the weight of catastrophe, each had risen to the challenges, even heroically, struggling in the aftermath through long hours with little but local help. By and large, they had managed to get their school systems functioning again (all were operating by November), yet something was missing.
In the throes of the Depression, when the nation faced a period of intractable poverty, the Roosevelt Administration devised a quasi-governmental agency, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), to confront Appalachian poverty. Reaching across local and state borders, this federally chartered organization dealt with endemic flooding, brought electric power to the poorest mountain coves and small towns, then subsequently functioned as an economic development engine for a still-poor region. Its charter in 1933 made its mission explicit: “a corporation clothed with the power of government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise.” Ironically, when the lights went on at the Tupelo Cotton Mill, the small Mississippi town became America’s first TVA city.
The analogy seems clear. Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, and parts of Texas faced a perfect storm of troubles following Katrina that no local effort could fully understand or solve. In the wake of immense loss, what should be rebuilt, and where? Months after the disaster, local governments continue to struggle with the answer, chafing at the disparity between new FEMA flood maps, federal regulations, and the rights of property owners. The voters clearly want their land back. Despite the best efforts of trained planners, architects, or committed professionals in a variety of fields, from health care to education, the future of the area remains clouded. Who can sort through competing claims?
The daunting challenges faced by those five educators demonstrate the need for an authority like the TVA, mandated by Congress, capable of spanning state governments and resource networks, cutting red tape, and leading the way toward the thoughtful redevelopment of the Gulf South after this country’s largest natural disaster. Schools are so critical for economic development that even the slightest diminution of their effectiveness would spell a kind of permanent doom for future growth. But a guiding hand, supported by economic development as the affected region rebuilds, could set the stage for decades of enlightened 21st-century prosperity, moving away from danger and pointing to the higher ground.
The American Architectural Foundation is to be commended for taking a leading role in helping this stricken area recover its school facilities. It remains for Congress and the current administration to take the next, bold step toward ensuring our nation’s well-being by creating an authority to oversee the rebuilding of the Gulf South in a bold, visionary manner. While we are still reeling from Katrina, new storms are brewing in the Gulf, and our planning has just begun.