Calm During the Storm

Calm During the Storm

Roy Baker, Norris School District (Neb.)

Only 10 miles outside of Lincoln, Neb., far from the devastation that still haunts the Gulf Coast, Roy Baker feels the desperation of Hurricane Katrina's victims. It's impossible for him not to: this soft spoken yet determined superintendent of a school district so quaint in size its entire facility exists on one campus, Baker dealt with crisis first hand in May 2004 when a tornado swept through Norris County severely damaging most of what was in its path.

"I remember that night, sometime between 9 and 10 o'clock, hearing the school had been hit. And being here, on one campus, it hit everything--the high school, the middle school, elementary, all the athletic fields, every physical facility.

ON HURRICANE KATRINA: " I observed, in New Orleans, that no matter how good things are done from now on, there's always going to be some memory of how things were handled poorly."

Baker stayed awake all night. Once the winds broke and morning came he reached Norris County's board of education and held a meeting where everyone got on the same page as to how they'd move forward, all while sitting at his kitchen table.

With 300 construction workers and Baker on-site daily, school was delayed only by two weeks at the summer's end, even though 40 percent of the high school was still under construction. Today, a year-and-a-half later, some classrooms opened only weeks ago.

Home-town know-how: He may not have planned it, but Baker's life in Nebraska prepared him for the 2004 tornado. When his father died his freshman year of high school, his family remained on the farm until Baker was readying for college. Nine months after his family moved, a tornado destroyed his previous home. He called on those feelings quickly last year.

Getting a perspective: Katrina brought Baker some bad flashbacks, but it also put things in perspective. Like Louisiana, terrific amounts of drenching rain in Norris County were as damaging as the tornado itself. "That's why I empathize with those people," says Baker. But comparing his tornado to Katrina, "No matter how bad things were, there's always someone worse off than you."

Credit where credit is due: Baker created an e-mail for staff and local media to keep people abreast nightly of reconstruction efforts. And for non-Internet users, he wrote a weekly column in the Hickman, Neb., Voice News with updates on post-storm progress.

The new Rudy Guiliani: His efforts, he says, were praised almost embarrassingly. "A Lincoln newspaper went out and reported I was the Rudy Guiliani of southeast Nebraska."

State accolades: For his handling of the crisis, Norris' successful K-12 master plan for teaching reading that has increased at-level grade reading from 60 percent to 80 percent, and decreased drop-out rate, he was named Nebraska Superintendent of the Year in 2004.

Know when to delegate: Though most of the credit for Norris County's bounce-back rests on Baker's handling of the situation--he delegated when necessary, accepted help as needed, and didn't flinch when decisions had to be made, quickly.

Midwest spirit: Baker says he and everyone else just displayed typical Midwest behavior. "I like the values of Midwest people," he says. "When something needs to be done, they just roll up their sleeves and dig in. They don't sit around."

Jennifer Chase Esposito is a freelance writer based in Boston, Mass.


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