School Community Rebuilds After Katrina The children are so amazing,” said Gloria Childress, a school-based speech-language pathologist (SLP) with the St. Bernard Parish School District (SBSD, Chalmette, LA). “If you ever want to see a group of children who are thrilled to be in school, it’s these kids. The school experience is the most normal ... Features
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Features  |   November 01, 2006
School Community Rebuilds After Katrina
Author Notes
  • Dee Naquin Shafer, an assistant managing editor of The ASHA Leader, can be reached at dshafer@asha.org.
    Dee Naquin Shafer, an assistant managing editor of The ASHA Leader, can be reached at dshafer@asha.org.×
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School-Based Settings / Features
Features   |   November 01, 2006
School Community Rebuilds After Katrina
The ASHA Leader, November 2006, Vol. 11, 1-21. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR1.11162006.1
The ASHA Leader, November 2006, Vol. 11, 1-21. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR1.11162006.1
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  • Gloria Childress works with grade school students who are now located at the Andrew Jackson High School campus.
The children are so amazing,” said Gloria Childress, a school-based speech-language pathologist (SLP) with the St. Bernard Parish School District (SBSD, Chalmette, LA). “If you ever want to see a group of children who are thrilled to be in school, it’s these kids. The school experience is the most normal thing about their lives.”
The schools are serving as a nucleus around which the communities of St. Bernard Parish outside of New Orleans are coming together after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Once numbering close to 10,000 students, the school system reopened with a little more than 300 students on Nov. 14, 2005, almost three months post-hurricane. Considering the challenges, it is impressive that the school opened at all.
Most people feel they know the story of Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005. The storm devastated the Gulf Coast as far as 100 miles in each direction from its center. Nearly 2,000 people lost their lives as a result of the storm, making it the deadliest U.S. hurricane since 1928.
Yet no one story can tell the depth of the destruction that occurred. Just 15 minutes east of the French Quarter is St. Bernard Parish, which sustained significant structural damage to 100% of its residential and commercial units. Water surrounds approximately two-thirds of the parish, which contains marshlands and numerous small islands. Storm damage came both from the hurricane and a massive storm surge funneled in by the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. A 27- to 30-foot wave of water came up over the levees.
The entire parish was flooded; most areas received five to 15 feet of standing water. Unlike the slower, “filling-up-the-soup-bowl” flooding of New Orleans, water in St. Bernard rushed upward. In about 15 minutes, houses were smashed or knocked off their foundations by a storm surge higher than their roofs. The storm ripped open a giant Murphy Oil tank in the heart of the parish. Four habitable buildings remained in this area that once was home to more than 70,000 people. Perhaps one-third of the population has returned.
After the hurricane, Childress recalled, “Our entire tax base was gone. Our superintendent borrowed money and got some backup. She knew the children who were living in tents and trailers. She knew that if the community was going to come back, it was going to be through the school.”
Re-creating Routines
In November 2005, the parish’s 15 public and eight private schools were consolidated into trailers in the Chalmette High School stadium parking lot. This school year in August, the SBSD expanded to 4,000 students in 18 portable buildings in two locations: grades 7–12 are on the Chalmette High School grounds, and the pre-school through sixth grade is located at the Andrew Jackson High School campus.
The children receive hot breakfasts and lunches and have room to play and study. School is much more comfortable than home for many of the children, since St. Bernard residents mostly live in trailers, crowd in with relatives, or commute long distances. Some families drive in from Mississippi or from other areas in Louisiana. They drop the children off at school and go to jobs or work on their houses, Childress said.
Childress, an SLP with St. Bernard since 1979, returned to work at the Andrew Jackson location in August. Student records must be re-created since almost all paper files were destroyed. The system employed 12 to 15 SLPs before the storm; currently three are on staff. Before the hurricane, she supervised other SLPs. “Now everything is everyone’s responsibility,” she said.
SLPs are seeing children with significant communication problems, she said. While some children have been in several different schools during the past year, others did not attend school at all. Those who need extra support are often receiving it wherever they are-while in line for the cafeteria or on the playground, throughout the day.
“My role is primarily with the pre-school children. Many are non-verbal or have limited verbal skills and we’re primarily helping them learn the routines of the school,” Childress said.
Prior to Katrina, the school system had a very effective program to identify children with special needs, she said. Children would be referred in the spring before a school year and SLPs would do assessments. Now students come in from off the streets.
“We have to take them where they are and try to make it work in the classroom. It’s much more than what was needed in the past,” said Childress, who at least has a room in which to see children now. At first, she had only a table. “Children are resilient-and people here certainly have to be. It’s just very much a matter of being in the moment. There are no scripts to use.”
Reconnecting With Home
Childress and her husband Conrad also fled the area last year. “We got 15 feet of water all the way up into the attic,” she said of their home. They moved to Lafayette, LA, where she contacted that school system’s lead clinician. “I was waiting for [my school] to be ready for me to come back.”
Instead she immediately went to work in Lafayette, where the school system needed more SLPs after absorbing about 3,000 students who had evacuated. Then on Sept. 24, 2005, Hurricane Rita made landfall near the Texas-Louisiana border, causing even more residents to evacuate their homes.
Childress and her husband returned to St. Bernard Parish in the summer to find little of their home to salvage. Many St. Bernard School District employees were-and still are-living on the school campus in FEMA trailers; Childress considered it briefly, but said, “We were desperate for a house. We found a rental [on the opposite side of New Orleans] through a friend.”
Attending the ASHA Schools Conference in August helped. A friend and colleague who was presenting encouraged her to go. Childress was reluctant but made the commitment. “It was absolutely wonderful to be with my peers,” she said.
Transitions Ahead
A lifelong Louisianan, Childress’ family lost everything in Hurricane Betsy in 1965. She said that knowing a hurricane could strike is a way of life, and everyone develops patterns of preparation. Everyone keeps an ax in the attic in case it’s needed to evacuate through the roof, she said, adding, “It’s like having a spare tire.”
The first day she returned to work in St. Bernard, it felt exciting. Driving daily through the changed landscape is a new kind of challenge, though.
“It feels like home-but it’s not home,” she said. “It’s me sitting in a strange chair, sitting in a strange room.”
The Childresses are unsure about where they will live permanently because their home was in the oil spill area. Others might wonder why anyone would want to rebuild in the parish, but for her the answer is clear.
“It’s where my heart is. My parents are buried near my home. I raised my three children there,” she said. “[But] our hearts are broken.”
Bringing School Back

Next year’s plan for the St. Bernard School District is to bring back three more locations: a middle school, another elementary school, and an alternative school. Out of St. Bernard’s original 15 public schools sites, at least five will be torn down, and the other sites will be re-evaluated.

“It all hinges on what our community needs will be at that time,” said Gayle Hunter, a supervisor with the district. “Probably about 15,000 of our 70,000 residents are back with us.”

The Federal Emergency Management Act increases by 10-fold all donations to the school, she said. To help the St. Bernard Parish School District (www.stbernard.k12.la.us), contact Gayle Hunter at ghunter@stbernard.k12.la.us or call 504-301-2000.

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November 2006
Volume 11, Issue 16