Public Comment

Commentary: Hurricane Katrina, the CNA and our Community College

By Stephen Kessler
Tuesday November 07, 2006

Sitting before our TV’s witnessing the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the nation stunned, incredulous, in shock. Conversation, public and private, a mix of anger and disbelief. How could the flood victims—disproportionately poor and black—be treated so badly, deserted, left to fend for themselves, to die? The Bush administration went AWOL—absent without leave—revealing itself as having committed what can fairly be called malign acts of criminal negligence. This was in sharp contrast to the generous outpouring of volunteer help and contributions from around the country. A prime example: hundreds of RNs went down to New Orleans within days to respond to the horrible plight of the flood victims. 

Much attention and public commentary focused on FEMA which continues to be a disaster instead of a response to one. At present do we have faith that the people of New Orleans will be allowed to return and rebuild their homes and their lives? Do we have faith in a different outcome or the possibility of one for those hit by the next disaster? What would a different outcome look like? How do we think about and engage in open, public conversation discussing these matters in an intelligent and useful manner?  

A place to start is with these same nurses and their union, the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee (CNA/ NNOC), who coordinated much of the Katrina response. Their righteous action—ordinary people doing the extraordinary—gave many of us hope and needed inspiration; we seldom see such demonstrations of solidarity in our society. There is hope and broad recognition that serious change needs to be made, encouraging the possibility of a real conversation as to what direction our country should go. 

The CAN/ NNOC has recently established RNRN, the Registered Nurses Relief Network. This is an ambitious, indeed heroic effort that will bring together some 200,000 nurses from around the country organized to respond to emergencies resulting from natural (and unnatural) disasters. So we, the rest of us, that broader public, might do well to follow the lead of the nurses. (Remember, the nurses of CNA, the ones who kicked Arnold’s butt, are based in Oakland, for that we can be proud).  

We can initiate concrete action and useful conversation right here in Oakland, Berkeley and the East Bay. Namely, how we as local residents can join in with the nurses and figure out how to prepare and respond to disasters that might befall us here in our own community—like the ever present threat of an earthquake or breaks in the levee system of the Delta?  


The place to have the conversation 

A good place to have that conversation is at our community colleges, those of the Peralta Community College District (Laney, Merritt, College of Alameda and Berkeley City College). The community colleges are the place to upgrade the disaster response skills of the healthcare workforce and so train students in the RN, LVN and paraprofessional programs offered by the District. This would mean working with CNA and the other healthcare unions (i.e. the United Healthcare and Hospital Workers Union and the Social Workers Union—both of SEIU, and the Doctors and Dentists of AFSCME), to develop this skill upgrading and training capacity of the colleges. Other types of training related to disaster preparedness and response should be offered at the colleges in collaboration with locals of the International Federation of Firefighters.  

The various local, regional and State jurisdictions of government and the unions can be brought together along with others in conversation that can be the beginning of a public works planning process. To this end the Building Trades Council and the Steel Workers Union can play key roles determining necessary public works projects and address issues like how many new apprentice workers will need to be recruited and trained. The civil engineers, planners, and architects working for local governments and represented by the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers or SEIU, would likely seize upon the opportunity to engage their fellow workers and members of the public to figure out the options involved in rebuilding our infrastructure.  

Likewise, the community colleges can provide a unique forum. Assuming a sponsorship role for these essential discussions will allow the colleges to undertake their mission as a resource center for community development. Public policy conversations, discussions and debates that more likely characterize the academic environments of liberal arts programs, can also be directed to members of the community who would not typically be so engaged by the colleges. Attracting this broader, more diverse constituency may well become an exemplary way for us, as local residents to exercise our obligations of citizenship. 

I’m encouraged by the prospect of these possibilities, having recently had a conversation about these ideas with Abel Guillen, who is running for the Peralta Community College Board. Abel is what they call a “quick study.” He immediately grasped the notion that the District can both provide opportunities for training and promote an exchange of ideas and conversations amongst the broad public and interested parties who can be served by the District’s colleges. I’m optimistic that he and the other Board members will take advantage of the opportunities before us and follow the lead of the nurses. 


Steve Kessler worked with victims of the Loma Prieta Earthquake, he is a community development planner and a Berkeley resident.