New Orleans: Ready Or Not? Rain In, School Out

Jul 12, 2018

Climate change is bringing more intense weather — more rain, heat and storms. And in New Orleans, extreme weather is disruptive. People park their cars up on curbs, and miss work — and school. It turns out kids missed a lot of school this past year, largely because of aging infrastructure failing during extreme weather.

On a freezing day in January, two boys exit Canseco's market in Gentilly and step onto the icy parking lot. School has been canceled for the day, and these two are finding ways to pass the time. 

"We just chillin'," seventh grade student Corey says in between bites of the Slim Jim he just bought. He's with his cousin, fifth-grader Jay, who has mixed feelings about being out of school. 

"When I stay out for a long time, I miss it. But then when I go back, I don't want to go," he says.

The cousins slide around on the slick parking lot, dancing to the music that blasts from a passing car. Then they head back towards home.

Schools were closed for three days in January. Record freezing temperatures iced over roads, strained the electric grid, burst pipes and prompted a boil water advisory.

Jay and Corey were having a good time that day. But it's tough on their parents when they're out of school. Jay's mom, Blaire Antoine, lost part of her weekly income because she had to stay home with him.

"It's hard," she says. "And I don't have, of course, the money to pay somebody." 

For some kids, missing school also means missing a meal. More than 80 percent of students in New Orleans public schools receive free or reduced-price breakfast and lunches because their families are poor.

Closing school, even for a day, also disrupts learning. Most kids in New Orleans missed six days of school this year. That can affect standardized test scores in a city where there's a lot of pressure to do well. Schools with low test scores can be forced to close, or can be turned over to new management.

"It definitely is more stressful for schools and teachers," Firstline Charter Schools CEO Jay Altman says.

Altman says schools usually close down when there's a big storm coming. But this past year, they closed because of failing infrastructure. In August, several sewerage and water board pumps failed and contributed to widespread flooding, and kids missed two days of school because of fears of more flooding. In January, a freeze compromised the city's drinking water, prompting more closures.

"I think the sooner we can improve the infrastructure, then when it comes to these close calls around whether to close schools, my guess is we will do it less often," Altman says.

And then there are the power outages, which can happen on perfectly sunny days. At least 10 New Orleans-area schools closed or had their classes disrupted due to power outages last school year. Logan Atkinson Burke runs the Alliance for Affordable Energy. The group is often critical of Entergy, the city’s utility.

"I think the sooner we can improve the infrastructure, then when it comes to these close calls around whether to close schools, my guess is we will do it less often" - Firstline Charter Schools CEO Jay Altman

"We are in a situation right now where our equipment is in a position of potential neglect," Burke says. She points to a power pole outside her office window.

"You see how the crossbars are broken and cracked?" she asks. "Yeah, that’s all over town."

Entergy says outages often happen because of unforeseeable circumstances, like a squirrel that gets fried on a power line or a truck that crashes into a substation.

But data submitted to the city’s utility committee show the vast majority of the city’s outages are because of problems with Entergy equipment.

Burke says Entergy needs to invest more in equipment to keep school from being canceled. And that Entergy should be paid based on how well the company provides energy, not just how much.

In an emailed statement, Entergy said it's already spending millions of dollars to improve its distribution system. Here's the statement:

Power outages can be caused by any number of factors, including weather events, equipment issues, Mylar balloons or other materials coming into contact with feeder wires, cars knocking down poles, lightning, animal intrusion, etc.  Entergy New Orleans has a reliability program and a storm hardening program, both of which have been filed with the New Orleans City Council.  These programs focus on improving reliability and hardening the system against storm and other extreme weather events.  From 2016 to 2018, including planned expenditures in 2018, Entergy New Orleans has spent or will be spending over $50 million to improve its distribution system.

When it comes to flooding and pumps, former mayor Mitch Landrieu said the city may need to raise water rates in order to pay for a major overhaul of the drainage system. Now Latoya Cantrell is in office. And she says, she's not ready to do that.

"At this time I am not. I want to use the resources that are allocated," she said in an interview. "But I do want to show results for people before going to them to tax them even more."

With climate change, scientists say the Gulf coast can expect stronger storms and more extreme weather. That means, unless something changes soon, kids are only more likely to miss out on learning.

This piece is part of our series New Orleans: Ready Or Not, a collaboration with The Lens

Support for WWNO's education reporting comes from Entergy Corporation.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Foundation for Louisiana.