Picking Up the Pieces
A school devastated by Hurricane Katrina reopensbut for teachers, the real work is just beginning.
As Jo-Ann Ordoyne takes roll in her 11th grade American history class, about half the names she calls out are greeted with silence.
“Fernando?” says Ordoyne, a teacher at Bonnabel High School in Kenner, Louisiana, for 33 years. “Anybody hear from Fernando?”
No one answers.
“Megan?” she calls out a few minutes later.
“I heard that she’s not coming back,” one student replies.
It’s Monday morning, October 3, the first day back for public schools in the New Orleans suburb of Jefferson Parish after Hurricane Katrina struck southeastern Louisiana on August 29. Since that day, Ordoyne’s students have been scattered far and wide: Atlanta; Dallas; Houston; Panama City, Florida; Shreveport, Louisiana; and St. Louis.
Now 15 of them are reunited, but things are definitely not the same. They’ve all been through a lot, and so has their school.
First, there was the storm. Roofing was ripped off some of the beige, blocklike buildings that make up Bonnabel High’s nondescript campus nestled in a suburban neighborhood near the New Orleans airport. Heavy rains flooded halls and classrooms. Powerful winds leveled trees. Parts of the campus were under more than a foot of water. And then there was the mess left after the school was pressed into service as an evacuation center. Filthy clothes, rotting food, urine, and feces had soiled hallways and classrooms.
Still, five weeks after Katrina landed in Louisiana, Bonnabel and 78 other Jefferson Parish schools are welcoming students back. “It was an incredible effort by a whole lot of people,” says Diane Roussel, the superintendent of the district, which enrolled 49,000 students before the hurricane forced mass evacuations from the New Orleans area.
But Ordoyne’s regular classroom is still off-limits, with cleanup contractors removing ceiling tiles, flooring, and plasterboard. Her temporary quarters have been dubbed the “Fourth of July” room because of the elaborate red, white, and blue decorations. The 55-year-old educator has festooned the room with eye-catching extras: stuffed bears in honor of the school mascot, a big poster from the movie Meet Joe Black, and placards with slogans like “You never, never, ever give up!” On the front chalkboard, she has written “Welcome back, Bruins!”
In her makeshift surroundings this first morning back, Ms. O., as Ordoyne’s students call her, prepares to share some of her own experiences and invites the students to speak up, too.
“We have all lost something,” she tells the class. “But in spite of all our personal misery, we are here, and we know the value of education.
“The future that you envision for yourself,” she adds, “begins again today.”
While the worst damage from Hurricane Katrina was centered on portions of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish, where public schools are still closed [see “Crescent Wrench, page 20], Jefferson Parish didn’t get off easy. Five of the district’s 84 schools were damaged so badly that they still have not reopened, and they may well be written off altogether. Many local businesses, including two major shopping malls, remain closed this first week of October.
The task of getting the school system up and running began just days after the storm hit. At an early-September school board meeting in Baton Rouge, the state capital, district officials estimated that about half the schools would be ready by the target reopening date of October 3. Facilities were divided into three categories—A, B, and C—based on the extent of damage. C schools had the most severe damage and were not expected to reopen on the target date, if at all.
Bonnabel High was on the C list. “I never, ever thought the school would open” on time, says Alan Forcha, the school’s plant manager. “It was just trashed.”
Forcha stayed on campus throughout the storm and afterward. He did all he could to minimize the damage, and he barely slept the week of the storm, particularly after a last-minute decision by police to use the school to take in displaced people. “I had to turn it over to the authorities,” he recalls. “It was crazy; it was chaos.”
In all, some 2,000 evacuees stayed at the school over the course of seven days, he says, though they came and left in waves. “Most of the people who came in had no food, no water, they had nothing,” Forcha says. The situation worsened when the campus first lost power and then water.
The damage caused by the building’s use as a shelter “was probably the biggest shock to all of us,” says Raymond Ferrand, Bonnabel’s principal. Items worth as much as $5,000, including PE uniforms and sweat suits, were taken.
Teachers and other staff members helped with some of the cleanup, though professional contractors were hired to sanitize the buildings and help meet health and safety codes. “All of your teachers ... were cutting trees and hauling trees, bleaching walls, picking up things that we never, ever thought that we would have to pick up,” Ordoyne tells her students.
Contractors still roam the nine-building campus, with their efforts focused on one building that remains closed and another that is only partially open. In addition, more than 150 state and local police from New Jersey—in the area to help with local relief efforts—are still staying in the gymnasium and using half the cafeteria for meals.
Only 664 students showed up for Bonnabel’s first day—less than half the usual population of about 1,600. Nearly 250 more will follow in the coming week, but “right now, I actually have too many teachers” districtwide, says Ronald Ceruti, the assistant superintendent for human resources. “If we don’t get those kids, then you don’t get the money.”
The students who are back have been through a month of upheaval: packed into small hotel rooms in unfamiliar cities, staying at the Astrodome in Houston, moving from city to city, returning in some cases to find their homes unlivable and their parents out of work. “The hurricane, the natural disaster, is over,” says Jo Ballantine, Bonnabel’s social worker. “But there is, I think, a hurricane inside of each one of us.”
Bonnabel serves a diverse enrollment, with many students from low-income families. Almost half the students are African American; about one-third are white; one-quarter are Hispanic or Asian. Roughly two in three qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Most of the more affluent families in Kenner, including many in the neighborhoods right by the school, send their children to private schools.
Regjon Lee, a 10th grader, says she spent “four strong, hard weeks” in Baton Rouge after the storm. She slept on the floor in a Motel 6 with seven family members, all in the same room.
Junior Karen Villegas traveled to Houston with her extended family—her parents, her pregnant sister and other siblings, an aunt, and her grandmother—where they stayed in a trailer. Villegas, whose home sustained heavy damage, attended a Houston public school for about one week. “I didn’t like it,” she says. “I didn’t really have any time to get accustomed, so it was weird.”
Leigha Cooley, another junior, says she doesn’t feel quite right. “I didn’t lose anything, and a lot of people did,” she says. Her classmate, 16-year-old Angela Carrillo, says she worried about what she would find on her first day back to school. “I dreaded today,” she says. “I was scared to come back and see who’s not going to be here.”
But two days later, Ordoyne is already diving back into the curriculum. She’s giving one of her history classes a quiz, with another planned for the following day.
Most kids, she says, aren’t able to do homework outside of school because they are helping rebuild their families’ houses, are piled into close quarters with many relatives, or are holding part-time jobs.
Still, she says, most of her students are “really good.”
“Every now and then, I’ll have one that drifts off or starts to cry, and I tell them, ‘You know what? If you have to cry, cry,’ ” she says. “I’m trying to help them cope.”
Ordoyne can relate. For her, Katrina calls to mind another big storm, Hurricane Betsy, which hit the area when she was a teenager back in 1965. She lived at the time in what she describes as a “typical old New Orleans home” on St. Patrick Street with her parents, two brothers, and a sister.
“I can remember the house just rattling, and the wind just blowing and howling and making these screeching, high-pitched sounds,” she says. The shingles from a neighbor’s house crashed through her family’s windows, “just like knives in the wooden floor,” she says.
This time, Ordoyne’s home in nearby St. Charles Parish suffered only minor damage. But she lost at least one thing of great personal value: Katrina leveled three pear trees in her backyard planted years ago, one for each of her daughters.
So as part of her effort to help her students cope, she turns to her subject material to remind them that they’re not the first to weather a disaster. “As we talked about the Great Depression in history, that was not your reference, so you didn’t know the sacrifices that that generation made,” she tells the class. “You didn’t realize how strong a character it took to pull together to rebuild after the Great Depression.
“Now it has happened to you,” she continues. “This is your catastrophe, and as you grow older, grow into adulthood, you’ll talk about this for years to come, and you’ll tell people: ‘You haven’t experienced anything. I survived Katrina.’ ”
Vol. 17, Issue 03, Pages 18-21Published in Print: November 1, 2005, as Picking up the Pieces