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Students, teacher make do in post Katrina schools

Myron Labat jokes that when rain poured a couple of weeks ago he drove the Second Street ferry.

The principal used a bus to shuttle fourth- and fifth-graders from 20 portable classrooms across the street to the cafeteria in Second Street Elementary School to lunch and back.

“We had pretty severe rains,” Labat said.

After being gutted and redone, the cafeteria is the only part of the historic 1923 school building that is still useable since Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29, 2005.

Second Street Elementary was among the Bay St. Louis-Waveland district’s six schools heavily damaged by the hurricane.

The district was the last of the coast districts to reopen — on Nov. 7, 2005 — after Katrina devastated 11 districts in the three coastal counties.

Like Bay St. Louis-Waveland, many of the districts are still making do with lower enrollments and portable classrooms on shared campuses.

Gary Bailey, an architect with Johnson, Bailey, Henderson and McNeel, said new construction to replace destroyed buildings is going very slowly.

“The whole negotiation with FEMA and insurance companies is still extremely frustrating and dragging most new projects out until spring,” said Bailey, who said he is involved with about three-fourths of the coast school projects.

“Many of the emergency-type renovations have made progress. The new construction and heavy renovation has been laborious.”

The 233 students at Second Street Elementary, about 65 percent of the original enrollment, are in a makeshift complex of portables joined together with a wooden deck and covered with a wooden and metal canopy.

“It seems like a regular classroom to me,” said fourth-grader Presley Favre, 10, of Bay St. Louis.

She regrets not having class in the historic Second Street building.

“I wanted to go in the building this year. My cousin went there, and she said it was really fun,” she said.

Teachers aren’t complaining about the portables.

“The classes are nice and clean. They’re large. We have our bathrooms in our rooms. Everything is brand new,” said fourth-grade teacher Debbie Wilson, who has taught at the school five years. “It’s a little noisier. The only drawback is when it rains.”

Bay St. Louis-Waveland is feeding students from six schools, including the alternative school, out of two renovated cafeterias. Bay Middle and Bay High are sharing a cafeteria after Bay High’s was destroyed by water.

“We’ve got it as good as we can get,” said Judy Mumphrey, food services director. “The hot meals are important.”

Two schools — Waveland Elementary and North Bay Elementary — are fed from there with portable coolers and warmers hoisted into two lift-equipped vans.

“It can get complicated,” said Lisa Wasson, cafeteria manager who was manager at North Bay before the hurricane. “It’s learning a whole new way of life.”

On a recent Tuesday, elementary students ate hot chicken and sausage gumbo with potato salad. Forrest and Tina Necaise joined their two daughters for lunch served in a portable trailer at North Bay Elementary.

“It seems to be working. They’re getting fed. It’s not the same cold sandwiches. It’s a hot meal,” Forrest Necaise said. “I’m pretty happy with it. It could be a lot worse.”

In next-door Pass Christian School District, students moved back into the renovated Pass Christian High in October.

“We’re just delighted to be back in it,” said Superintendent Sue Matheson.

The middle school students and central office staff are still in portables on the Delisle Elementary campus, which was damaged but not destroyed.

Matheson and architect Bailey were among a group that went to Washington a few weeks ago to come up with a plan for the rest of the district’s facilities. Their trip was paid for with a grant from a national architectural firm.

The 1937 Pass Christian Middle School that was destroyed will be rebuilt as a building to house kindergarten through eighth grade using FEMA and insurance money.

The Boys and Girls Club will locate on the same site and build two gymnasiums there. The Pass Christian Parks and Recreation Department will build a third gymnasium. And a new birth-to-4-year-old day-care center also will be built there. Much of this will be financed with grant money.

“It’ll probably be the only campus of its kind in the United States,” Matheson said.

Long Beach school district has bought land north of the railroad tracks, where Superintendent Carrolyn Hamilton is hoping to relocate Harper McCaughan Elementary, which was destroyed.

Students still are attending classes in portables on the Quarles Elementary campus.

“We’re working with FEMA to see if they will pay infrastructure costs of moving the school,” she said, including those for water, sewer and roads.

The district has about 2,800 students, about 90 percent of the pre-Katrina enrollment.