The ‘New Normal’

In the last district in Mississippi to reopen following Hurricane Katrina, educators struggle to keep school while putting their lives back together.

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Hurricane Katrina’s winds and water have long since receded, but a majority of the students and employees in the Bay St. Louis-Waveland school district still live in temporary homes. All but a few businesses in this hard-hit community on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast are closed, and the town’s scenic bayfront of shops and grand houses is gone. Wrecked houses and piles of wood and other debris still line many streets. Dusk turns to darkness quickly, since most streetlights remain out.

Students attend classes in portable classrooms linked by wooden boardwalks that cover the muddy terrain. Kim Stasny, the superintendent here for the past seven years, shares one such building with two colleagues—an improvement over the Quonset hut they occupied a month ago. The schools still don’t have telephone service, however, and they didn’t have e-mail until after Christmas.

By last week, 1,440 students had returned to Bay St. Louis and neighboring Waveland—60 percent of the enrollment before the storm destroyed four of its six public schools. The district, which reopened Nov. 1, was the last in the state to do so following the Aug. 29 hurricane. Of those who returned, 95 percent are from poor families, compared with 72 percent before Katrina.

But life here, where the now-closed Casino Magic Bay St. Louis was a major employer, has not stabilized. Families travel 30 minutes just to reach a grocery store—the town’s three supermarkets are closed—and then must contend with long lines. Only minimal child care is available to working parents, and unemployment has shot up to 21 percent. The grief left by the deaths of two students and their parents who drowned in the storm—plus the loss of personal belongings—weighs as heavily as the moisture in the humid coastal air.

“Nothing is the same,” Assistant Superintendent Debbie Cox said on a recent day. “It’s just a whole new normal for us.”

See Also
Read the accompanying story, “In Mississippi, Tough Times Persist”

Ms. Stasny estimates that her district has spent about $11 million on cleanup and renovations since Hurricane Katrina—more than half its $19 million annual budget.

Late last month, the Bay St. Louis-Waveland district was awarded just over $7 million for hurricane recovery from the state, part of a $1.6 billion hurricane-relief package approved by Congress in December. The long-awaited help arrived just in time, although the district had requested $17 million. ("Hurricane Aid is on the Way to Districts, Private Schools," Jan. 11, 2006.)

“I was afraid that I was going to have to close down schools after payday in January,” Ms. Stasny said.

But educators here remain concerned about the gaps in the local tax base caused by the extensive storm damage. And progress on rebuilding schools, homes, and businesses has been “excrutiatingly slow,” the superintendent said.

The portables that have replaced the four flood-damaged schools are new and clean, but they have no storage space, said Donna Torres, the district’s federal-programs director, who now spends much of her time coordinating donations and volunteers. This month, for example, a group of retired teachers is on its way from Georgia to substitute for Bay St. Louis-Waveland teachers who need time to meet with insurance brokers and representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The district has seen an outpouring of support from churches, civic groups, other schools, and professional organizations across the nation, plus the help of individuals who showed up to lend a hand.

Now that the basics—books, paper, lesson plans, book bags, and such—have been taken care of, educators are hoping donors will send money to restore art and music programs, rebuild library collections, purchase computers to run educational software, and restore the health clinics in each school that were run by the Hancock County Medical Center. A community group from Scarsdale, N.Y., that learned about Bay St. Louis-Waveland through a state official in Mississippi is planning a fund-raising dinner for the district in May.

Students here missed 47 days of school after Katrina struck. To ensure that seniors graduate on time, the district abandoned block schedules in favor of a six-period day that will help them meet the instructional time now required by the state. School uniform policies also have been relaxed, thrilling high school students.

Ms. Stasny’s main concern is that children learn, even as the community struggles to pick itself up. None of the district’s 175 teachers has been let go, but some moved away. Many classes are smaller than they were before Katrina.

Audio Extra
Staff writer Alan Richard recently revisited the Mississippi Gulf Coast to report on the region's progress five months after Hurricane Katrina struck. Here he tells of his visit to schools in the Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Pascagoula, and Pearlington areas of Mississippi, and reports on the state of the community as each adjusts to the 'new normal' while it attempts to rebuild its old way of life.

“I understand all the stress,” Ms. Stasny recalled telling her staff. “But do whatever it takes to catch the kids up academically.”

Mississippi is allowing the district to delay administering state tests by a week this spring. “The children saw a lot, so I don’t know how that’s going to affect them down the line,” said Ms. Cox, the assistant superintendent.

Talking inside a portable classroom that serves as a cafeteria at North Bay Elementary School, school counselor Debbie Lain said the living and working conditions were taking their toll.

“Things are beginning to bubble up,” she said late last month. “The teachers have done a wonderful job of keeping it together, but I sense there’s that fatigue in them as well. I’m saying that, because I’m beginning to feel it myself.”

“This beautiful place that we knew, it looks like it has been bombed,” Ms. Lain said. “It has been five months. This is getting old.”

Teachers at North Bay, relocated in portables on a field behind the school, welcomed the news that the district had relaxed rules against cellphones in class. They never know when someone might call about rebuilding their homes, for instance. Still, school offers a respite from the difficulties of everyday life. “Once you leave here, you’re with the insurance company, you’re with the FEMA trailers. There’s no extra room,” said Tammy Raymond, a teacher at North Bay.

On the ironically named Paradise Lane, an eclectic band of five teachers is living on a small patch of land owned by Beth Favre, a special education teacher at North Bay. Their FEMA trailers are so close together that two trailers share a string of colorful holiday lights.

Inside her trailer, 50-year teaching veteran Jean Foster often spends her evenings cutting construction paper and making games she hopes will help children learn their letters and sounds. “Most people [her age] are getting ready to sit in their rocking chairs,” she said. “Well, I don’t have a rocking chair.”

Some evenings when the gnats aren’t bad and the “Katrina smell” of muck and rotting debris abates, the teachers and the two spouses in residence throw cookouts. The gatherings provide relief from the tight living quarters: Each trailer has a small living-breakfast room, a galley kitchen with a tiny oven, a bedroom just large enough for a double mattress, and a bathroom with a 3-foot tub.

Amanda Breckenridge, a teacher-consultant at Bay High School, got a trailer makeover from a friend. Drab beige curtains and seat cushions have been replaced with bright and cheery orange. A Kermit the Frog doll sits on the built-in sofa in honor of Mississippi native and Muppets creator Jim Henson. Three pink flamingos and planters of petunias decorate the doorstep.

While positive attitudes help, educators here say they are struggling.

“We’re trying to motivate children who are still dealing with a lot of emotional issues,” said Gloria Roman, a special education teacher who lives with her husband in the trailer village. The couple’s children are with relatives in Louisiana for now.

“I’m still trying to stay motivated” under the stress of the situation, added Patricia Baird, a special education teacher at North Bay Elementary who also lives in the village.

On Wednesdays, Ms. Foster, a cognitive- and behavioral-development expert who retired to the area from Texas, and a school counselor meet with students to help them talk about their burdens and experiences.

“Wednesday is a terrible day,” Ms. Foster said. “When I get home, I don’t have anything left.”

Vol. 25, Issue 23, Pages 28-31, 33

Published in Print: February 15, 2006, as The ‘New Normal’
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