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 Hancock County areas of Mississippi, and reports on the state of the communities as each adjusts to the ‘new normal’ while they attempt to rebuild their old way of life. (Windows Media file: 6:56)
For Mississippi school districts damaged by Hurricane Katrina, long-awaited financial help from the federal government is on the way. The Aug. 29 storm battered an 80-mile stretch of the Gulf Coast particularly hard. Now, 32 of the state’s 152 school districts will receive some aid from the first round of funding under the $1.6 billion Hurricane Education Recovery Act, state schools Superintendent Hank M. Bounds announced last week. Mississippi and Louisiana each got $100 million, while Texas received $50 million and Alabama $3.75 million to help schools with expenses related to “restarting” after the storm. (“Hurricane Aid is on the Way to Districts, Private Schools,” Jan. 11, 2006.)
The Mississippi state board of education has approved grants to public school districts totaling $79 million, ranging from a low of $5,000 to the West Jasper schools to more than $9 million to the Harrison County schools.
Under a requirement of the federal act, 20 percent of the money to help restart operations will be reserved for nonpublic schools. So far, under that provision, $9.2 million of the state’s initial $100 million allotment will flow to 21 such schools.
In addition, districts will receive reimbursements for “displaced” students to help cover the cost of educating students who have relocated after the storm and were not included in state funding originally.
For the quarter ending Dec. 1, the state reported counting 17,027 displaced regular education students in public schools and 2,047 in nonpublic schools. For each student, the federal government will reimburse districts up to $1,500 per quarter; for students with disabilities, districts will receive up to $1,875 per quarter.
Despite the financial help, Sue Matheson, the superintendent of schools in Pass Christian, Miss., expects to order layoffs.
“We are looking to have to [furlough] a lot of personnel for next year,” she said. The coastal district, which had 2,000 students before the hurricane and now enrolls about 1,400, saw two of its schools destroyed and its high school and district office gutted by floodwaters. The grounds of the remaining school, DeLisle Elementary, now are covered with portable classrooms that house all of the district’s students.
In a section of Pass Christian once home to athletic fields, dozens of families now live in “The Village,” made up of green canvas tents. The nonprofit relief group Save the Children helped Ginger Holmes, a former owner of a child-care center, open a makeshift center for children in three dark and stuffy tents. The tents could remain in place for two years.
In the rural Pearlington community, Charles B. Murphy Elementary School, which was ruined by flooding that reached 8 feet, has been transformed into “Pearl Mart,” where local residents can shop for peanut butter and canned vegetables, cleaning supplies and bedsheets, and clothing and children’s books. All were donated and are free for the taking.
A sign reads: “We will not be undersold!”