10 Years After Hurricane Katrina: Meet Sivi Domango, The Educator Who Started A Charter School In The Midst Of Tragedy

The winds reached 125 mph, the damages totaled nearly $108 billion and the fatalities were estimated at 1,833 people, with more than 1,500 of those deaths occurring in New Orleans.

According to FEMA, Katrina, a category three storm that reached a category five at its most intense, is “the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history.” Cars, homes and building were submerged underwater, while mostly African-American families living in Treme and the 9th Ward—the hardest hit by Katrina—were left to fend for themselves receiving little aid or assistance. As many reached for higher ground in hopes to escape the monstrous water, images of those trapped in Katrina’s wrath became stained in the minds of those watching around the world.

And while New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast drowned, educator Sivi Domango (pronounced Sa-Va) didn’t allow Katrina to keep her from teaching. While staying in a Baton Rouge community center known as The River Center, Domingo, with the help of other charter school teachers misplaced because of the storm, established a make shift school. About 100 students, grades second through sixth, resumed some sort of normalcy during the height of Katrina.

Domango recalls the day a decade later and remembers the horror of it all, but also the importance of never giving up on yourself and your children.

VIBE: How did you get your start in education?
SiviDomango: I started off as a substitute at a testing school. I was a single mother when I graduated from college and needed a job but there weren’t any full-time positions available so I began work as a sub. During that time, there was a teacher who took a sabbatical for three or four weeks and Brenda Barnes, the principal, put me in that room. She said to me there’s an opening at a new school and maybe I should interview with that principal Anthony Recasner, so I did. He said to me, ‘I don’t have anything available other than a P.E. position but if you are willing to teach P.E. for half a year and you do well, I’ll give you your own class.’ I took the position, didn’t know a thing about P.E. [Laughs.] But what I did know was education. So I set my physical education classes up as they were real core classes. I taught the basics of every sport, the rules to the game and I made kids study before they became engaged in the physical activity of it all. The next year, I received my own class. I was an eighth grade social studies teacher. From there, my career progressed.

When you heard about Katrina, did you think it was going to be as bad as it turned out to be?
Oh, no. We knew the storm was coming, but it’s weird. In New Orleans, knowing that we’re below sea level, getting your tool kit and being prepared for hurricanes is something that every family does. The thing is no family realized that the flooding was going to occur, that’s why so many people stayed at home because when we find out a hurricane is coming, honestly, it turns into a party. [Laughs.]

READ Ava DuVernay and David Oyelow Hurricane Katrina Film

Really?
Seriously! You make sure you have all your foods that you need. Parents will prepare meals that will last a long time, things you can eat cold, and to be frank, it just became family bonding time. This was one of the first times in a while people were afraid since Hurricane Betsy. [Editor’s Note: In late August 1965, Hurricane Betsy, a category four storm, with winds reaching up to 155 mph, struck mostly southern Florida and Louisiana, causing nearly $1 billion in damages.] Hurricane Betsy was one of the worst hurricanes to happen in New Orleans until Katrina.

Do you remember what the day was like?
I was an eighth grade teacher at New Orleans Charter Middle School and I remember being in the courtyard speaking to my director at the time. We were looking at the clouds and it was a beautiful day and it was the first week of school and it was just great, but it was the calm before the storm. Then the storm hit and all chaos occurred. I don’t think people were as prepared as they usually are. Many of the people in New Orleans probably spent their money on preparing their children for school by getting all of their uniforms, and supplies, but we have a poverty rate in the city and I can imagine a lot of parents not having many resources.

READ Spike Lee Speaks Out Five Years After Hurricane Katrina

It was 10 years ago and I’m sure the memory was vivid, but what was Katrina like?
It was something you didn’t think could or would happen. It was heart wrenching and it was especially heart wrenching for me because my mother was actually in New Orleans. My mother decided to stay because of her sister, and honestly, in the car with me was my son and our stuff and my sister, her daughter and their stuff were in her car, so my mom’s sister had two kids and we literally all could not fit, something was going to give. She wanted me to go with my sister but she would not leave her sister. At the time, my sister lived in a housing development made out of brick, and she stayed on the second or third floor and my mother said, ‘If it floods, the flooding isn’t going to reach us. We’ll be fine.” My mother was eventually helicoptered out of New Orleans to Amarillo, Texas.

After leaving your mother, where did you go?
I traveled to Baton Rouge. Myself and a few of my extended family members stayed in a shelter and it was because I didn’t want to leave them, and I was the only one in the family who had reliable transportation and we stayed in a community center called the River Center. It was actually really clean and nice, and no one else was there. Our family ended up being one of the only families there for a while until the levies broke and more families started coming in.

So after families began to come inside the River Center, in the midst of all that tragedy, you then decided to start a makeshift charter school?
Yes. My boss, Anthony Recasner and I, we both had struggles and we made it in spite of all of the obstacles placed in front of us. Me, an African-American woman, raised by a single mother, raised in the projects. I saw everything that there was to see from the drugs to the killing. I’ve been there, so when this happened, he called me and a few other teachers. He said, “Guys, these are our families, these are our kids.” And one day, he took a walk in there and we had a conversation. He asked, what is the one thing we can do to help parents? And what we noticed was parents could not wrap their minds around what occurred, and they didn’t know the next steps they were going to take. As African-Americans, we’re some resilient people, but the look on their faces, it was of dismay. You couldn’t get answers from anyone. You couldn’t rely on the government, you couldn’t rely on your neighbor. No one knew what to do, so we asked ourselves, how can we alleviate stress? And two, we were really concerned with the kids and providing them with some sort of normalcy.

READ Lil Wayne To Host Benefit Concert For 10 Year Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

What was the demographic of people in the River Center with you?
Unfortunately, there were so many single mothers with kids. You had your sporadic husband and wife, but the majority was black women with kids, who did not know what to do or had the capacity or the time to pull it together for themselves and the question is: Do you let that happen or do you do what you can? In the mindset of service, the answer for me and for my colleagues was, this is why we got into the work. If you were in the River Center and looking from the second floor down, you could just feel the depression. We had to take the kids out of it and take that pressure off of the parents, so then the parents could try and get their thoughts together. We can’t continue to let our kids just drown. And then we said this achievement gap that we talk about all the time was definitely going to widen. If there was something we can try to do, let’s do it. Something beats nothing.

So how’d you guys do it? How’d you start the school?
My role was to ensure that we had books and teachers who were really teachers at heart. And we didn’t cut the students any slack. They would say ‘I’m tired’ and I would go down in the midst of the crowd and wake the kids up. It got to the point where the parents would have them ready. Because it was important to us, we made it important to them. It took a while, but once they got into the program of it all, it freed up parents and gave them the time to stand in the FEMA line, or to stand in the Red Cross line.

How did you get all the supplies needed for the children?
We were in Baton Rouge and as a charter school, keep in mind, we still had resources. We still had our checkbooks. We couldn’t write checks in New Orleans but in Baton Rouge, my director could still go to Chase bank or Liberty bank and write checks for the things we needed. Also, we started getting donations when people started hearing what were doing. We didn’t have a lot of everything, but we had enough to utilize things the way we needed to so we could make it work for the kids.

After everything cleared and the storm passed, what happened to the charter school?
Samuel J. Green Charter School was an existing charter school. It was a part of our network. New Orleans Charter Middle was one of the first charter schools in new Orleans. The New Orleans Charter Middle was damaged because of Katrina. There was no going back. The Samuel J. Green charter was located in uptown New Orleans. It received a little flooding but the building wasn’t damaged, so we were able to move back into that building in 2006.

How’s the school doing now?
Samuel J. Green is doing well! I have roughly 700 or more students from grades kindergarten to eigth grade.

Looking back, is there anything you would’ve done differently?
You know, I would say the answer to that would be no, and I’m going to tell you why. I have parents today that I see that are so grateful and they always express their gratitude just for my being there, and not just me, but to all of us. I still have parents that tell me how meaningful it was that they had that time to handle their business and to have someone when they felt like no one was there. I feel like the steps and the steps of others were ordered.