Life Lesson

He took a gig with Teach for America in New Orleans and ended up working for FEMA

 New Orleans—If things were normal in Louisiana right now, Colin Reingold would be living a made-for-Showtime inspirational movie. The tall, blond, bearded Yale grad, 25, had been on a typically meandering post-college path. First, he did a year abroad, washing dishes in New Zealand. Then, a two-year Teach for America hitch. Last spring, he deferred admission to law school at the University of Michigan for an extra year. He had started a spoken-word poetry group among his high school English students at Edna Karr Magnet School here and taken them to a national competition; this year, he was planning to expand the program citywide. Reingold, a Pennsylvania native, had gotten pretty comfortable down South. "New Orleans is unique— it has a culture unlike any other American city's," he says. "It felt like home."

Things are not normal in this city anymore. And so, instead of introducing young minds to Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni, Reingold spends his days hunched behind a laptop, as an outstretched finger of the long arm of what many have criticized as a slow and bureaucratic federal aid operation. Along with approximately 50 other displaced Teach for America participants, he was hired by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in mid October at $20 an hour plus $30 for overtime as an "application assistant."

That these young college graduates, overwhelmingly from out of state, should be given the inside track over locals for well-paid temporary jobs may seem unfortunate. "Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco wanted to find a way to keep these teachers in Louisiana, so they will be available in the state when schools reopen," read FEMA's press release on the Teach for America hirings. A similar opportunity was not extended en masse to other New Orleans public school employees, 7,500 of whom are on unpaid disaster leave and slated to be fired by January 31.

Colin Reingold never expected to end up working here.
photo: Anya Kamenetz
Colin Reingold never expected to end up working here.

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Rachel Kramer Bussel interviews Anya Kamenetz.

Regardless of the politics surrounding the decision, Reingold was eager to help. When we spoke, he was working out of a tent at a new federal disaster recovery center in the recently reopened Lower Ninth Ward, among rubble and mold-blackened debris, a few blocks from Fats Domino's house. Some of those who come seeking help are parents of Reingold's former students, and he brings up the fact that he was a teacher as often as he can. "When someone comes and sits at the computer they assume we don't know anything about them or their neighborhood," he says. "When I say that I taught here, it goes from them being mad at me for FEMA's not helping them to them being grateful to me for trying to get FEMA to help them."

Reingold needs all the goodwill he can get from often frustrated applicants: "About 70 percent of the time I'm telling people they have to wait. People obviously in need of assistance haven't gotten it yet because there are bad ways of determining eligibility. Someone tells me, 'I need housing now—I'm living in my car and I don't have any money,' and I have to say, 'Sorry, ma'am, your application is in Maryland being processed—it's going to be another three to five weeks.' " The patience and calm Reingold cultivated as a teacher is much in demand at his new post.

"Working for the federal government is similar to working for the New Orleans public school system," he says. "There are plenty of good hardworking people, but for the mediocre to bad people who aren't trying, there's little accountability. There's no system for feedback or improvement. There's bloat and inefficiency."

As an example, Reingold cites one of the most commonly asked questions: "Where's my trailer?" According to The Dallas Morning News, as of December 3, FEMA had provided only 16 percent of the 22,232 housing units requested in the city. There have been delays in finding appropriate sites where the trailers can be hooked up to power and water. "We subcontract them out to the Shaw Group," says Reingold. "We just now set up a hotline where people can call and try to find out when they're coming. Before that, we'd have to say, well, you gotta wait to hear from them—if you file another application, it could take even longer."

Despite these annoyances, Reingold is happy to be working with the communities hardest-hit by the storm, the same ones he worked in as a teacher. "I'm still at a transitional point in my life," he says. "I'd like to eventually work on these urban issues more systemically. I'd be interested in coming back here after law school if there's anything for me to do."

 
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