2015-08-28

By Michael Brown

CEO and Co-Founder, City Year

Ten years ago this week, like so many Americans, I was glued to the news, closely watching reports of Hurricane Katrina building strength off the Gulf Coast. City Year Co-Founder Alan Khazei and I were in close touch with our dear friends Jennifer Eplett Reilly, an original City Year co-founder, and her husband Sean Reilly, our law school roommate, who live in Baton Rouge and were bracing for disaster.

When the storm made landfall, it seemed at first as if perhaps the worst had been avoided.  But when the levees broke and the great American city of New Orleans flooded, it was painful to witness from a distance the tragic loss of life and overwhelming to try to fathom the vast extent of the destruction, the chaos of mass evacuations, and the heartbreak of lives irrevocably upended.

As we at City Year followed reports of the nation’s disaster response, there was only one question in our minds: how could City Year AmeriCorps members help respond to the greatest natural disaster in our nation’s history?  How could we do our part to come to the aid of the Gulf Coast communities that would be nothing less than devastated by this storm of colossal strength and speed.

The City Year community came together, determined to respond with our own strength and speed, in a way that was consistent with our mission, values, and expertise. Five months before the storms hit we had already begun taking steps to launch a City Year program in Louisiana, thanks to the vision and leadership of Jennifer Eplett Reilly. That planning process usually takes two years or more, but given the magnitude of the crisis and the determination of City Year alumni who stepped forward to lead and serve, City Year Louisiana was launched in just 100 days.

Ten Years Later: A Reflection on City Year's Response to Hurricane Katrina and our Ongoing Service in Louisiana

We were just a small part of the recovery efforts, and have been proud to stand among so many citizens and organizations who have contributed to rebuilding New Orleans and the region, and proud to serve in a community that has demonstrated truly remarkable resilience.

Ten Years Later: A Reflection on City Year's Response to Hurricane Katrina and our Ongoing Service in Louisiana

Alan, City Year’s Executive Vice President AnnMaura Connolly, other senior leaders and I were lucky to have at our side a mighty group of committed champions, including Jennie and her husband Sean, the COO of the Lamar Corporation; Lori Bertman, head of the Pennington Foundation; then-Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu (now Mayor of New Orleans); John Davies, leader of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation; and community leader Diana Lewis. 

President Clinton used the spotlight of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) and resources of the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund to fuel the launch, a remarkable commitment that was announced from the stage of the first CGI meeting.

We issued a call to our alumni for anyone willing to upend their lives on short notice and serve in Louisiana. Within just two days, 100 dedicated alums had applied to join the founding corps.

With generous support from the Reillys, The Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, and the Pennington Foundation, a start-up team arrived in Baton Rouge within 60 days, and on December 10, City Year Louisiana launched its campaign of service by working to repair and renovate the Alice Harte Elementary School in New Orleans.

I think it is fair to say that the launch would not have succeeded if not for two tireless leaders, Jennifer Eplett Reilly and Lori Bertman. Jennie, a force of nature in her own right, was relentless in her efforts, before and especially after Katrina. And I still remember Lori, in her outstanding efforts to raise funds for the launch, coining the phrase “Victories, Victories, All Day Long.” That was the mantra of City Year's launch in Louisiana and I continue to quote it today.

Ten Years Later: A Reflection on City Year's Response to Hurricane Katrina and our Ongoing Service in Louisiana

To celebrate the launch of the site, City Year Louisiana held its Opening Day ceremony on February 21, 2006 on the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol. The event featured Governor Kathleen Blanco, Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, City Year Louisiana Board Chair Jennifer Eplett Reilly, Congressman Richard Baker, and CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service David Eisner. 

Ten Years Later: A Reflection on City Year's Response to Hurricane Katrina and our Ongoing Service in Louisiana

Support for City Year Louisiana continued throughout the year with visits from President George W. Bush and President William Jefferson Clinton in March 2006.

Ten Years Later: A Reflection on City Year's Response to Hurricane Katrina and our Ongoing Service in Louisiana

When I think back on City Year’s early work in the Gulf Coast, I also think of my friend, Eli Segal, City Year’s former board chair, who was absolutely instrumental to the founding of City Year Louisiana. Sadly, Eli Segal would not live to see the inaugural City Year Louisiana corps sworn in; he died just days before they took their oath of service, and we dedicated their year to his memory and inspiration.

In the earliest days of serving in Louisiana, City Year served in Renaissance Village, a temporary housing community in Baton Rouge, with a focus on working with the children in that community. One of the most important things we did was plan recreation for children who underwent trauma by being forced from their homes and relocated. 

Ten Years Later: A Reflection on City Year's Response to Hurricane Katrina and our Ongoing Service in Louisiana

City Year’s ongoing work in Louisiana has evolved, and now both City Year Baton Rouge and City Year New Orleans – along with 24 other City Year sites around the country – are fully focused on helping students in high-need schools succeed.  City Year AmeriCorps members serve from before the first bell rings through the after school program. In between, they offer students individualized attention - tutoring in academics and mentoring life skills, like teamwork and goal-setting – all while helping to promote a positive culture throughout the whole school.

A decade after Hurricane Katrina, the nation again turns its attention to the Gulf Coast, hopeful that recovery efforts have proven effective, and that preventive efforts will protect the region from any possible future storms.  In the assessment of Regine Webster, Vice President of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy—on whose Advisory Council I have been pleased to serve over the past several years—there is reason for hope: “In the past 10 years, our response to disasters has changed in several remarkable ways. We have changed practice, in a way that better addresses disaster-affected communities and disaster-affected individuals.” I find this very heartening.

And I am likewise inspired by the impact City Year New Orleans and City Year Baton Rouge are having in high-need schools. This year 117 corps members serve full-time in 12 schools in the two sites, in partnership with committed teachers and school leaders. And we are seeing promising results. For example, of the 2nd-5th grade students tutored by City Year New Orleans during the 2013-2014 school year, 92% and 93% respectively improved on their literacy and math assessments. And behind those statistics are so many moving stories of dedicated corps members who made a real difference in the lives of the students they serve.

A decade after Katrina, I am inspired by the role that national service has played in the response and recovery, helping get the region back on its feet. Nearly 40,000 national service members have served, including 600 City Year AmeriCorps members. They came from across the country to serve with many organizations, supported by AmeriCorps and the Corporation for National and Community Service. 

So, when I think back with sorrow about the destruction Hurricane Katrina so unfairly wrought on so many, that sorrow is tempered by a sense of awe for the resilience of the human spirit and a deep belief in the tremendous power of young people in service to tackle even the most difficult situations with idealism and commitment. 

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