Dr. Brenda Garibaldi Hatfield was one of my classmates and friends growing up who I interviewed for “Cherished Memories: Snapshots of Life and Lessons from a 1950s New Orleans Creole Village.
Dr. Brenda Garibaldi Hatfield was appointed to the position of chief administrative officer (CAO) of the city of New Orleans just two weeks prior to the largest weather-related disaster in United States history, Hurricane Katrina. Prior to that appointment, she served as director of intergovernmental relations for Mayor Ray Nagin. Brenda’s leadership and intellect became apparent early in her new position as she acted thoughtfully and led a team of city workers to respond quickly to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
When over 80 percent of the city was flooded by storm water, Dr. Hatfield as CAO immediately established a temporary base of operation in Baton Rouge for essential city personnel to begin the monumental task of coordinating emergency relief funding for the citizens and government of New Orleans. When the immediate crisis was over, she led a team of key personnel to quickly amend the city’s budget to reflect a totally devastated revenue base. She was challenged from day one, but I am confident that her determination was heightened as she sought ways to address the difficult issues facing her.
Baptism by fire probably best characterizes her initiation as city administrator. Her first day on the job was August 16, 2005, and Katrina hit on August 29, 2005. She had to learn her job at the same time that she had to respond to the horrific disaster faced by New Orleans. Over 400 city-owned buildings were damaged; over 80 percent of the city had to be rebuilt; a new operation for city government had to be established in Baton Rouge; citizens were displaced all over the United States;she had to make the decision
to lay off 50 percent of the city’s employees, as there were insufficient resources to pay these employees and also respond to the infrastructure problems that existed—all of this happened within weeks of assuming the position of chief administrative officer. Her introduction to this level of city government was like that of Marvelyne Hughes, who assumed the presidency of Dillard University weeks before Hurricane Katrina.
Few men and women could create the strategies and develop the necessary processes to effectively build/rebuild after such a disaster. All eyes were on these two women who carried out their respective roles with distinction, but also with a personal and physical toll that is obvious. They hated to take actions that adversely affected others, but there was no reasonable alternative. They had the confidence to succeed, the heart to be concerned for others, and the awareness to visualize a better and safer future for their constituents. Now, both the city of New Orleans and Dillard are on firmer ground in part because of the efforts of these two stalwart women.