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Rebuilding Schools After Katrina: A Six Year Plan

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 18 Jul 2011 05:30pm | comments
Darron Cummings, AP

It's hurricane season in Mississippi, reminding us of the many residents still rebuilding after Katrina.  It's been six years and gulf coast schools are in the last stages of recovery. MPB's education reporter, Annie Gilbertson goes to Pass Christian, or Katrina ground zero, and tours new classrooms.

The Mississippi School Board is touring rebuilt schools in Pass Christian, Long Beach and Bay St. Louis. At this stop, contractors arefeeding wires through walls and prepping the ground for a new parking lot.

Of all the rehabs and rebuilds the Pass Christian School District went through in the past six years, Delisle Elementary School will be the last to open its doors.  Before this site was completed, the school operated out of trailers. Pass Christian Superintendent Sue Matheson says when insurance and federal funds came in, administrators suddenly had two full-time jobs, running schools plus managing reconstruction.

When the school finally opens in the fall, it will be the first time fifth-graders will step into a real classroom. 

“Well I will tell you this 85% of our students, our faculty and our community had totally lost their homes, had absolutely nothing left.”

For years, students had only known temporary portable rooms brought in by FEMA, never the space and capabilities of a real classroom.  

Chairman Charles McClelland told Assistant Principal Myron Labat, it’s a real mark on their childhood.

“It’s something they can tell their grandchildren.” 

“They didn’t even know what a gym was.”

Eeryone remembers that weekend back in August 2005.Coastal residents were preparing for what they thought was just another severe storm.  Paulette Alleman was an elementary school secretary in neighboring Bay-Waveland District at the time.   She left work that Friday afternoon relieved to have heard the hurricane was going to miss their town.

“Well then Saturday morning, my principal called and asked if I could come up and help.  We prepared.  We covered computers, unplugged everything, and that’s about all we could do, and lifted things that were low.”

After evacuating, Paulette returned to find their efforts to prepare had been useless against Katrina.  Some schools were flattened; others shelled and looted by the newly homeless.

“We did get in the vault and get all of our school records out.  Put was wet, was molded, and what was dry.  We had to separate everything.”

Her daughter Brittany was in high school then, and she and her classmates didn't get back to school until November and it was very different from the school they remembered.  They lived in trailers and went to class in trailers. They didn't have books for awhile. Then some books were donated from other districts, but not enough. Brittany remembers a lot of crossword puzzles, worksheets and movies. Teachers didn't have computers to keep attendance, so she and her friends often didn’t go.  A lot of students dropped out.

“I know people who dropped out three weeks before graduation. It was just crazy.

Brittany says it felt like the adults were just putting them somewhere while they figured everything out.

Will Marling of the National Organization for Victim Assistance, which helps organizations like schools recover from trauma, says during natural disasters, schools do more than teach.  They ground the youth community.

“We’re commonly recommending that a school get back to doing something.  And even if it is doing worksheets, which is the best we can do, that brings a sense of order to everybody, particularly the students.”

Now Pass Christian and Bay-Waveland schools are performing better than most schools in the state. New schools are equipped with computer labs, smart boards and other state of the art education technology.  The buildings are stronger too, now built to withstand up to 150 mile per-hour winds and with floors that can handle flooding.  As one principal said, next time there are storms and floods, we'll just hose out the mess and get back to work.

From the Southern Education Desk, For MPB News, I'm Annie Gilbertson.

*Correction: John Kelly (not Myron Labat) is speaking with Charles McClelland.


Darron Cummings, AP



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