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Issue Date:  November 18, 2005

Katrina brings nightmare to New Orleans schoolkids

New Orleans

It’s two months since Killer Katrina ravaged “the Big Easy,” and many neighborhoods, like Gentilly, where St. Benedict the Moor School stands in ruins, still look like Halloween in hell.

On this sunny late October Saturday, Pamela Hodgson, a Holy Cross sister and native of Merrill, Wis., got her first thorough look at her ravaged elementary school classroom. This would have been her first year teaching 15 third-graders from the poorest of the poor families in New Orleans. These boys and girls were among 90 children once blessed with a jump-start in life at this pre-kindergarten through fourthgrade Catholic school.

Hodgson, 55, who taught at St. Francis School in Merrill for many years before she took her vows as a Holy Cross Sister in 2003, trudges inside the skeletonized building, as a dozen National Guardsmen shuffle past her humping moldy desks and blackened books amid a stench of rot that assails the nostrils. The teacher is greeted by her principal, Phyllis Benoit, a native of Lake Charles, La., who now spearheads the effort to bring the school back to life.

Inside the germ-breeding ooze, it is hard to imagine that this school could ever be able to open again. “Everything is gone,” Hodgson said. “Nothing is left.” She was trying not to breathe the toxic air being filtered through her particle mask.

Slippery, slimy floors prompt many “be-carefuls!” from the unsinkable Benoit as she guides Hodgson and a small band of educators and disaster volunteers, garbed in protective gowns, germ masks and rubber boots.

In the courtyard outside, which St. Benedict shared with Henrietta DeLille Catholic Middle School (for girls grades five to eight), whose opening is uncertain, piles of classroom debris grow. School may be out forever for the neighboring schools. Both schools existed with the hope of giving these youngsters a way out of poverty.

Absolutely nothing is salvageable from the classrooms -- crushed shards of chalk; a dozen little clocks that used to help children tell time; tiny, broken chairs.

And what of Hodgson’s charges? They have disappeared to Baton Rouge and Shreveport, La., Boston, Gurdon, Ark., and elsewhere. The whereabouts of 10 children are unknown. Hodgson is the only teacher left. The others were flooded out of their homes and have dispersed from Maine to California. “I am not sure if I will ever see my little ones again,” she said pensively.

Children of this poor neighborhood escaped with little more than the clothes on their backs and their very lives. Their misery has been doled out like the meanest of trick-or-treats. Others have not fared even that well.

Spray paint scrawled on the bellies of rubbled neighborhood homes proclaims, “1-DB in back” (dead body), or “2-B here” (bodies), grim reminders of the whereabouts of some residents who would not or could not evacuate.

Eight feet of flood water inundated everything in its path when the nearby London Street levee breached. Few children were lost, but on a daily basis, family, friends and cleanup crews are still finding grisly remains in attics, under stairs and in other places.

The official body count is 1,056 casualties, according to the state, with 60 percent of the dead 61 years of age or older. Just 1.8 percent of the victims, according to the Jefferson Parish coroner’s office, were 20 years old or under. Forty-two percent were African-Americans, 31 percent were white, and 3 percent were Hispanics. Three hundred fifty-four bodies remain unidentified in St. Gabriel’s morgue.

The Times-Picayune newspaper reported that at least eight Orleans Parish deaths that resulted from gunshot wounds are being investigated by homicide detectives suspecting suicide.

In the Lakeview area, boulevards lie heaped with over 167,000 cubic yards of downed trees, ruined refrigerators, and soggy wallboard, carpeting and mattresses. Here lies street after street of gutted real estate with windows blown out, water lines stretching across the girth of these broken homes, flanked by nonfunctioning cars.

In the hardest hit areas of New Orleans, like Gentilly, Lakeview, East New Orleans, and the lower 9th Ward, it is deadly quiet. There are no sounds of children, no pets barking, only somber adults wondering if they have the grit to rebuild their homes or their lives.

St. Benedict, however, plans a comeback. The building will be stripped to the bare, outside brick walls and rebuilt as finances allow. “So much is needed,” said Hodgson. “But somehow, we’ll be back.”

Mary B. Good, a freelance writer based in Woodruff, Wis., was in New Orleans recently as a volunteer with the Holy Cross sisters.

National Catholic Reporter, November 18, 2005

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