[StBernard] LISD staffer honored for hurricane relief services

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Mon Jul 30 22:00:46 EDT 2007

LISD staffer honored for hurricane relief services

(Created: Friday, July 27, 2007 5:37 PM CDT)


It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Larry Williams, executive
director for facility services at Lewisville ISD. And for his efforts,
Williams received a once-in-a-lifetime award.

Williams was honored with the Cornerstone Award for his involvement with a
task force that helped a water-logged high school in St. Bernard Parish,
La., recover from Hurricane Katrina. The award, presented by the Council of
Education Facility Planners International, recognized his three trips to the
New Orleans area and around-the-clock service that Williams offered the
devastated community.

When Williams arrived in January 2006 to assess the damages done to
Chalmette High School in St. Bernard Parish, he saw a battered structure
that had been housing students since November 2005.

"The remnants of the hurricane were everywhere," Williams said. "It was
really a dangerous, kind of unsanitary place."

Until the building's interior was safe for students, the superintendent,
principal and the few teachers and administrators still left in St.
Bernard's Parish held class on the football field and in the parking lots.

St. Bernard Parish was the only 100 percent devastated parish in Louisiana,
said Beverly Lawrason, assistant superintendent for the school district.

"Every home, every church, every business was destroyed," she said. "We had
68,000 citizens and 27,000 homes. I think three homes were untouched by the
flood waters. Personally, I had 10 feet of water in my house. Everything was
wiped out."

When Williams arrived six months later, his team of eight architects,
engineers, facilities services workers and construction managers - all
volunteers - estimated that it would cost the school district about $18
million to get Chalmette High School up and running.

Each of the 21 school buildings on 14 campuses had been demolished, and
Lawrason and the superintendent decided to house all students, kindergarten
through 12th grade, at Chalmette until the other schools could be repaired.

To this day, there are only two schools in St. Bernard Parish open:
Chalmette High School, which houses seventh graders through 12th graders,
and Andrew Jackson Elementary School, which became a pre-kindergarten
through sixth grade facility. The district will open three more facilities
in August.

The rest of the schools, Lawrason said, will be fixed when they get to them.
Lawrason herself just moved back into her home three weeks ago, so she knows
how long it can take to renovate an entire school structure.

Williams and the rest of the volunteer task force helped Chalmette recover,
saving the district "hundreds of thousands of dollars in professional
planning," he said. They also got some companies to donate building supplies
to the renovation project, probably saving the district about 25 percent of
their total cost.

The work was tedious: Williams spent time calculating the area of
dilapidated classrooms and getting cost estimates for supplies.

"FEMA requires very detailed cost analysis," Williams said. "You can't say
to replace the carpet: You need to tell them exactly how much for each room,
how many sheets of sheetrock, what kind of bathroom fixtures they needed to

The wall of water

Before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast, Chalmette High School was
considered one of the safest places for residents to take refuge. It had
been used for years as a shelter for people who chose not to evacuate.

"Our people are very hearty and they don't always leave in the advent of a
storm. The school system has assumed the responsibility for opening
shelters," Lawrason said.

But during Hurricane Katrina, even Chalmette High School wasn't safe. The
group that gathered at Chalmette was a devastated lot: "Most of the people
who came there were older people who had no place to go, who are alone and
frightened, with various medical needs: dialysis, oxygen, people in
wheelchairs, people with diabetes, the whole gamut," Lawrason said.

Several school administrators had heard that about 250 people had gathered
at Chalmette to take refuge, and they felt compelled to settle in at the
local high school and offer aid to those left behind.

After they thought the brunt of the storm had passed, the superintendent was
told by radio that an eight-foot wall of water was coming down the street,
headed straight for St. Bernard Parish. She had 20 minutes to get 250 people
- many elderly or disabled - to the second story of the high school.

Saving people from drowning was her first priority. But this meant that
administrators had little time to worry about food and water, most of which
was housed on the first floor of the building.

The wall of water blasted through, knocking out windows but not seeping into
the second floor. What was left were 250 survivors without food or water,
many needing medication. Within a matter of hours, Lawrason said, the total
number at the school swelled to about 1,500, as people were being dropped
off by boat at the high school. Some residents would scavenge for food,
making trips to and from the trapped group of people.

"We sure received a lot of help. We really truly now understand that the
term 'neighbor' doesn't mean the person next door," Lawrason said.

Four days after the wall of water ravaged through their city, a boat full of
Canadian rescuers arrived and hauled the survivors out in small groups in
water that was now thigh-high. Many were soaking wet, dressed in Chalmette
football jerseys to stay warm.

The survivors left behind a saturated Chalmette High School - which had been
sitting in toxic water for about nine days - and were led to drier, safer

Starting from scratch

The day after Canadian crews hauled people out of Chalmette High School,
Lawrason and the superintendent began the slow process of rebuilding their
entire school system.

They had promised themselves and the citizens of St. Bernard Parish that
when the first child came back to the community after evacuation, they would
open a school. Eleven weeks after the storm, the first class was held in
Chalmette's parking lot.

They anticipated about 50 students, Lawrason said. About 720 students
registered: 334 of which started that first day in November, a total of 650
by Christmastime, and 1,500 by mid-January. The school year ended in May
2006 with about 2,460 students. This May, they had about 3,900.

"We were registering 20 and 30 kids a day," Lawrason said. "Before we knew
it, there was a class with 64 kids in it. We knew we were in trouble."

The administrators also wanted to offer their students a hot lunch, which
was virtually impossible since they had no gas service in the beginning
stages of rebuilding. Most of their students were living in FEMA trailers,
in shelters and even in the beds of pick-up trucks.

Weeks later, they found one facility which had gas service. To feed the
hungry students, who had been surviving on bologna sandwiches, employees
from the school district would haul mass-quantity lunches to Chalmette in
ice chests.

"You haven't lived until you've seen a 32-quart ice chest filled with
meatballs and spaghetti," Lawrason said.

Call to service

Chalmette High School, packed to the brim with students ages 3 to 18, needed
all the volunteer help it could get in the first few months it was open.
When a CEFPI employee petitioned facilities directors to donate their time
to assess the structural damages, Williams answered the call.

"I believe that everybody ought to be involved in service to each other,"
Williams said.

Volunteers at Chalmette participated in a variety of service, from
foundational support, like Williams and his team, who made the physical
structure safe for students, to charitable workers who put library books on
the shelves or labels on textbooks.

"Even internationally, from Poland and Japan and China, and different
European countries, we've received assistance, both in the form of manpower
and in monetary assistance," Lawrason said.

For Williams, the Katrina task force was his way to help a devastated
community get back on its feet.

"I think that people become blessed when they help others," he said.

Contact Sarah Blaskovich at 972-628-4074 or at SBlaskovich at acnpapers.com.

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