Sivi Domango, 44, was the Dean of Students/Assistant Principal at the New Orleans Charter Middle School in New Orleans when she heard reports of Hurricane Katrina’s imminent landfall. She and her family didn’t pay it much mind at first, even her mother, a Ninth Ward resident and survivor of Hurricane Betsy who was usually extra cautious.
Eventually, though, everyone in Domango’s family except her mother, aunt and cousin, fled to Baton Rouge, while her mother stayed behind with family at an apartment building on high ground.
But when the city flooded, they had to be rescued. Domango remained in the Eriwinville shelter in Baton Rouge, while her mother, fleeing the storm with her sister and Sivi’s dog, Princess, was relocated to Amarillo, Texas.
Because of the storm, Domango lost communication with her mother for a week. Once in the shelter, residents there had little contact with the outside world except for a sole TV where they picked up bits and pieces of information that revealed the bad news for many: that their lives, homes and neighborhoods had been destroyed.
Domango ultimately used her background as an educator to start a makeshift school at the shelter, where she remained for almost three months. She went on to work at a school in New Orleans, commuting there from Baton Rouge for 2 years.
She sent her son, Jovon, now 20 and a student at Southern University, to Houston, Texas to live with her sister while she helped rebuild the decimated New Orleans educational system.
Now the Co-Director of the Arthur Ashe Charter High School in New Orleans, Domango says that while the city has improved in some areas, the issues of poverty that existed before Hurricane Katrina and the trauma many experienced in the aftermath have not been fully dealt with.
Here is more of her story:
There were moments when I felt I was lost. It was this sense of depression and disbelief and it just was sad. And you could feel that being placed on the children that were there.
The newscasts would show you what areas were flooded and at one point the aerial (shots) showed New Orleans East, the Lower Ninth Ward, Mid-City and Canal Street, so you knew they were flooded. [Sivi’s home, destroyed in the storm, was in New Orleans East.]
Education was my safe haven. Not only did it lift their spirits, it lifted mine. Children’s Charter School in Baton Rouge allowed my boss to open up the River Center School, based in the River Center Entertainment Complex in Baton Rouge. (It was converted to a shelter for a period after the storm). We said to the kids ‘We’re not giving up on ourselves, so we’re not giving up on you.’
We were anywhere between 1st and 2nd to the 7th grade. We’d take the kids and bring them upstairs every morning. We created a system where the parents and kids were engaged. Still today, when I see parents that I worked with during that time, they say ‘Thank you.’
The reason I had the means to even apply for a job was because I had an education. And that’s what I told the kids – the way to get yourself out of any situation is by making good decisions and the first good decision is to get an education.
A year after Hurricane Katrina, Domango’s mother, Irma Thorpe, died of an aneurysm at age 53. She never returned to New Orleans.
Losing my mother was the most devastating of all.
Sivi returned to New Orleans to teach at the Samuel J. Green School, which was damaged in the storm.
You can just imagine the mindsets of the children. They were traumatized. It took a tremendous toll on me. I was yearning for my mother. I didn’t want my son to deal with what I had chosen to deal with by going back so I sent him to live with my sister in Houston, Texas. I was devastated. I was lonely. But there was this other piece of me that I looked outside of myself and looked at the kids and they needed someone to help them.
I looked at my situation and said ‘At least I have a job.’ But I was exhausted. I was getting up at 5 a.m. to get to school on time at 7:30 p.m. There was nowhere to eat because the Wal-Mart closed because thee were no lights, so there was always a level of fear leaving the school after dark. I had to wait to get outside of New Orleans [to get something to eat.] So imagine all of that taking a toll on your body and your psyche. So imagine working with kids who are combative and don’t want to go home.
My godmother’s mother wants to come home and FEMA still hasn’t paid out her property. She’s 87. And that is the reality. There are a lot of positive things that have come from Katrina. I do believe the education system is better. Is everything perfect? No, but are our kids achieving at greater levels than before, yes. Do our parents have choice now? Yes. Has education innovation and reform happened in New Orleans? Yes, but have we recovered? No.
Katrina reminds me that my mother is no longer here. Katrina reminds me that we had all this separation. While we went through one of the worst disasters in America, my mother and I weren’t together. Katrina separated families. There are still people in other states that want to come home.
What angers me is [thinking about] could this have been prevented? What angers me is that I lost my mother at the time she needed me most. She died alone. It angers me that I don’t have my family and my sister and my nieces with me.
It definitely dismembered the concept of family as I knew it. What gives me hope is that some people found a better life outside of New Orleans because of better opportunities or that [the relocation] forced them to wake up and seek other opportunities. And the education system is still not perfect but it is better.
I came back because I wanted to be a steward for my community. If going back and opening a school was going to revitalize a city, then I wanted to be a part of that. If coming back just for the little bit of work that I can do can make a difference, that’s why I went back.
(Photos: Sivi Domango (pictured with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan)