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The Eye of the Storm

When the waters from Hurricane Katrina receded, they left a new, daunting way of life for Gulf Coast educators. More than 18 months later, the region is far from back to normal.

By Cynthia Kopkowski

There are two ways of looking at life in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, a year and a half after Hurricane Katrina: like a visitor or like an educator who calls the parish home.

Visitors stare at the near-total destruction, caused by up to 30 feet of toxic water flooding the parish when the levees broke, a government-owned channel surged its banks, and the local refinery’s massive oil tank fractured. Smashed, rusting cars and boats rise from the water and weeds of Bayou Bienvenue at awkward angles. Rotting brown trees shorn of leaves poke the sky abruptly. A seemingly endless procession of homes with brick walls missing, windows smashed, and possessions strewn across their yards dot the landscape. On nearly all houses remain the spraypainted markings of the rescuers who floated from house to house searching for survivors and the dead. The visitor might presume that Hurricane Katrina ravaged this land a week ago, not 18 months ago.

The educator takes in the same littered bayou, the same dead trees, the same crippled homes, and sees progress if there is one less rusted car, one dead tree cut down, or one resident slowly carrying away buckets of debris. “You can’t look around and say, ‘It’s destroyed,’” says first-grade teacher Karen Nunez. “You have to say, ‘Look, there’s a little progress.’ That’s the only way to save your sanity.”

The story is the same across the Gulf Coast, from nearby New Orleans—where only 56 of the district’s 128 schools have reopened, more than half of them as charter schools—to the region as a whole, where more than 100,000 displaced residents are still living in temporary housing. Educators and support professionals in St. Bernard Parish, like those from other ravaged Gulf Coast cities and towns, have had to learn how to cope on their own, while helping their fragile students do the same.

“It is a new world,” says special education diagnostician Yvonne Ben. “If you were to ask me before the storm, I would have said we couldn’t make it.”

When Hurricane Katrina was still an unnamed mass in the Atlantic Ocean in late August 2005, nearly 9,000 students were getting the year under way at the 14 public schools sprinkled across St. Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans. A year and a half later, only two schools in one of the parish’s towns—Chalmette—are up and running, serving less than half of the area’s pre-Katrina students.

But between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m., Andrew Jackson Elementary and Chalmette High buzz with noise and activity. Andrew Jackson is now home to 2,000 elementary school students, along with all sixth-graders from the parish’s former middle school system. The seventh- and eighth-graders attend Chalmette High, rounding out the number there to 2,000.

Routing a couple thousand elementary school students and tweens through a building constructed as a high school and the adjacent grid of portable classrooms added to handle overflow is a logistical triumph. During lunch periods, up to three grades at once sit in percolating rows, munching on fish sticks and applesauce and chattering loudly. When it’s time to leave, they pour into the hallways, where teachers must serve not only as traffic directors, but also as hall monitors, hug-bestowers, and shoe-tiers. Two new schools are expected to open next year to accommodate the increasing number of students gradually returning to St. Bernard Parish.

Those students have changed in the aftermath of the storm. “The kids see more and hear more in those little bitty FEMA trailers than they need to,” says Nunez. “We are trying to adjust to [their] new situations. We’re more flexible now than we were two years ago.” Some students commute up to two hours each way to get to school, coming from temporary homes as far away as Slidell and Baton Rouge to attend school in their home parish. For most students, home remains a cramped FEMA trailer in which they jockey for space with parents, siblings, and pets. “In the past, I would have never allowed a student to just get up and walk around the classroom,” says fifth-grade teacher Donna Schultz. Now she and her colleagues deliberately build physical activity into their lessons. Group work, classroom stations, and peer tutoring that gets children moving are valuable tools of the trade. Jumping jacks are frequently prescribed in a few classrooms.     

Teachers know that in some cases, students are hunkering into their trailers’ small plastic bathtubs to do homework in as quiet a surrounding as possible. At Chalmette High, history teacher Dennis Bradley confides that, like a number of his peers, he doesn’t even give homework anymore, knowing the conditions under which it must be tackled.

“It’s a challenge to keep them grounded,” says sixth-grade teacher Carole Perkins. “Their whole way of life has changed, and that turmoil comes into the classroom.”

Fifth-grade teacher Carole Ortego incorporates more art projects, allowing students to express themselves by making booklets about Katrina composed of poetry and pictures. For a recent vocabulary assignment, she had the students illustrate words like “gale.” Not one of them had to ask what the word meant; nearly all colored pictures of their own homes being buffeted by winds and rain. Her philosophy: “These are my babies. I have to get them through this.”

But the tumult of the past 18 months may weigh the most heavily on the teenagers, who come from four high schools of varying academic success and economic backgrounds. “They don’t want to accept the change,” says Bradley, adding that at least a small degree of tension is omnipresent. “Some have just shut down, others are resigned.”

Discipline is made more difficult because each of the previous schools did things a little bit differently. “You basically have teenagers who rebel to begin with, who are trying to push the envelope a little more,” says Bradley while monitoring the hall outside his classroom during a class change. Breaking up a few arguments last year, Bradley found himself asking students, “‘Haven’t we been through enough together?’”

In addition to seeing their homes destroyed, many students witnessed unspeakable events during the storm, says Jackie Porter, a social worker at Chalmette High. Some saw family members and neighbors drown while they were being lifted into rescue boats. Teachers and education support professionals closely monitor students for signs that emotional burdens are affecting academic performance. While the federal and state governments granted Louisiana schools a one-year reprieve from assessment testing last year, all 10th-graders must now pass language and math tests, and all seniors must pass social studies and science exit exams.

“We look for changes, where a student who was at least adequate before is now doing worse,” says Porter. Seems simple, right? Not when Chalmette High’s student population and staff is an amalgam of the four previous high schools, the destroyed private school system, and transplants from surrounding parishes. Compounding the problem: in less than an hour, Katrina’s waters swallowed nearly all paper records—report cards, IEPs, special education evaluations. Staff continue to painstakingly recreate those files based on electronic records and documents sent from the far-flung districts where students scattered after the hurricane. Even contacting parents has been hampered by disconnected phone numbers and cell phones and computers lost in the flood.

“These teachers here?” Nunez says. “We’re more like pioneers now.”

For St. Bernard’s educators, the reminders of Katrina don’t end with the 3 p.m. bell. For many, the day still begins and ends in a FEMA trailer with less than 300 square feet of living space. In some cases, that trailer is parked in a lot on the school grounds. And don’t think mobile home—think camper. Teachers like Donna Schultz—who lives in a trailer with her husband and autistic son—and Dennis Bradley, who until recently lived in a trailer with his wife, two sons, and the family dogs, refer to the cramped quarters as “can-dominiums.” Further frustrating those who have called a trailer home for the past year and a half: of the $17 billion allocated to the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help people rebuild their homes, only $1.7 billion has actually made its way into residents’ hands.

In addition to juggling their workload, educators must also find a way to accommodate necessary, mid-day dashes to their damaged houses when a contractor or delivery person is scheduled to arrive. Even with what teachers at both schools call the unwavering support and understanding of their administrators, “it’s a bit overwhelming,” says Carole Perkins. Donna Schultz confesses that as a result, “we do have our crazy moments.”

Lunchtime is more precious than ever, giving teachers 20 minutes to sit, eat a sandwich, and blow off steam. Excitement is infectious when someone’s new kitchen cabinets are arriving that day, or if the plumbing got hooked up at a home the previous weekend. They trade tips on which restaurant is supposed to open that week (few have, and almost none in the parish are open past 7 p.m.) and what new stock the Walgreens drugstore has in.

When conversation turns inevitably to the federal, state, and parish government’s grindingly slow recovery efforts, bitterness pervades. Although FEMA received $42 billion for recovery, only half was spent as of February, according to news reports. And as much as $1.4 billion of that amount was misspent, according to the Government Accountability Office. In Louisiana, the Army Corps of Engineers received $5.8 billion to repair fractured levees, yet only $1.3 billion has been spent.

The stress from rebuilding lives and houses “is going to have an effect over time,” says Ortego. Chalmette High’s Bradley agrees. He knows from talking with his colleagues that some of them will retire sooner than they’d imagined. His own home was destroyed, and as he walks through the shell of it, pointing out where walls and rooms once stood, he says simply, “It was a nice house.” He stares at the rotted beams and soggy belongings still littering the floor. “Nothing big or fancy. But nice.” From the front yard he points to darkened, damaged homes that line the debris-strewn street, rattling off the list of neighbors who have moved on with no plans of returning to the once-vibrant middle-class neighborhood. The day before Katrina hit, he was at the park around the corner watching his son’s soccer game. Now the park is one more empty, weed-choked plot of land in a blighted neighborhood where streetlights flicker on at night only to illuminate empty concrete pads where houses used to be. “We’re trying to move on here,” says Bradley, “but sometimes we can’t.”

One week this past winter, a photographer arrived at Carole Ortego’s classroom door with pictures of her son and daughter lifted from the muck of her ruined home. When he pulled the fully restored photos from their protective bag, she began sobbing in front of her students. He had “turned back the clock,” she says. With her students watching and waiting, Ortego wiped the tears streaking her cheeks and used the moment to help them confront their own losses. “‘I said, ‘It’s OK to have these feelings,’” she recalls, her eyes brimming with tears as she recounts that moment. “Some days you don’t know how you and they are here and functioning.”

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The Eye of the Storm

The Eye of the Storm
More than 18 months later, the region is far from back to normal.