One year after Hurricane Katrina smashed into Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, washing away hundreds of communities and lives, FOXNews.com's Catherine Donaldson-Evans visits Slidell, La., to find out first hand how one town is determined to rebuild. This is the sixth of her series of exclusive reports.
SLIDELL, La. — Twin sisters Amanda and Allison Gaines epitomize school spirit.
The Salmen High School seniors are members of countless clubs. They get good grades. They’re a mainstay at pep rallies and the town-wide football games known as jamborees. They play soccer and are both on student council. They’re friends with just about everyone. And they don't make a secret of the fact that they love Salmen High.
So when they were finally able to come back home to Slidell weeks after one of the worst natural disasters in American history struck their town and hundreds of others in the Gulf Coast region, they went to campus with dread in their hearts to see if there was anything left.
The 17-year-old fraternal twins knew before they got there they’d probably lost their school. They were right.
“Our school floods when it rains, so we pretty much knew it was gone,” said Allison. “The lake is right there, and the swamp. But we just didn’t want to realize it. … It was horrible.”
“We pretty much broke down,” added Amanda. “It looked like a desert with all the cracked mud. The computer lab had a hole in the wall where the bricks had fallen in. Everything was just gray because of the mud and dust in the air. It looked like a war zone.”
They roamed around in a fog, taking photos, trying to absorb all the destruction and breathing in the terrible stench of sewage, slimy silt and rotting animal corpses that permeated the air every time the wind blew.
“The gym had dead fish in it,” remembered Allison. “We counted 78 dead fish just in one doorway.”
Salmen High was the hardest hit in the 52-school St. Tammany Parish district and ultimately had to be demolished – which just happened a few weeks before the school year started again on Aug. 14. A huge sand-colored gravel lot sits where the old buildings used to be.
Projections for completion of the new high school have a target date of 2010 or 2011, said principal Byron Williams, who is a Salmen High graduate himself.
Williams, who stayed in the area during the storm to assist at a shelter in the nearby Pearl River area, was one of the fortunate few whose home in the northern part of Slidell wasn’t badly damaged. But his school was in ruins.
When he came back to the grounds for the first time, he knew right away that the Salmen High building had been lost to Katrina.
“There was mud a foot-and-a-half deep everywhere, dead dogs, cats, fish, raccoons and a lot, a lot of snakes,” he said. “The walls of the school were imploded from where the storm surge hit it. The pictures I saw of the tsunami in Asia were very, very similar.”
Early on, Williams made up his mind to rescue his alma mater, the place where he’d met his wife, the place he’d dedicated himself to.
“It was tough. My whole life has really been Salmen High School,” he said. “I went into how-do-I-save-this-school mode.”
Superintendent Gayle Sloan began to hold mandatory strategy meetings very shortly after the hurricane, according to Williams, and soon set a return-to-class date for students: Oct. 3.
“That was big,” Williams said. “It gave everybody a focus.”
A Very Emotional First Day of School
Also significant was the fact that the principal at the neighboring Northshore High School pledged to do whatever he could for Salmen. In the end, it was decided the two would set up a “platooning” system – Northshore students would use the facility from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and
Salmen students would be there from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
But getting kids to come back when so many residents were scattered and communication was spotty wasn’t easy. Williams and other staff drove through neighborhood after neighborhood day after day, distributing fliers, talking to people cleaning their wrecked homes and getting the
word out that school would resume.
In order for that goal to become a reality, Williams had to get at least 200 Salmen High students to show up for the second first day of class that year. He posted a sign-up sheet at Northshore High so that school officials would have some idea of how many would be returning.
“We signed up – we were like the first ones,” Amanda Gaines said.
She and her sister had gone to another school for a few days in the small Arkansas town where they’d taken shelter with their parents and pets in the initial weeks after Katrina.
“We really hated it,” said Allison. “We came home from school crying. We were stressed out.”
“We were juniors, and we missed our friends,” Amanda added. “We love [Salmen]. It’s so much fun.”
On Oct. 3, Salmen High reopened its doors at the Northshore building. Of the 900 students who had been there when the school year started just before the horrific hurricane, 468 came back, according to Williams – more than doubling the amount needed to keep it going.
All 60 of his original teachers also returned, even though 72 percent of them had lost their homes. Three later moved away or retired.
The space-sharing system lasted through the rest of that semester. It wasn’t easy for the Gaines sisters, who were working and doing school activities like soccer practice in the morning, going to school in the afternoon and evening and then coming home to do their homework. But
they were relieved to be back in Slidell and at Salmen.
The students then moved to another temporary location, the junior high school, until summer break. By that time, 700 students had returned.
Williams got word fairly early on from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that Salmen High School had been rendered unsalvageable and would have to be torn down.
“That was an emotional point,” said Williams. “To read [in the plans] that the school I had invested so much time in and had so much love for was going to come down was tough for me.”
He pleaded for the buildings to be completely demolished before this school year began so that his students wouldn’t have to see the wrecking ball slowly chipping away at the old Salmen High. And he fought to ensure that the temporary modular classrooms and office buildings put up on campus grounds would be as comfortable and nice as possible.
“They had so much pride in that school,” said the twins’ dad (and Salmen High graduate) Keith Gaines, his eyes misting. “To see that just pulled away from them … it hurt. But they came back.”
“The first day of school was very emotional for all of us on this side of town,” added their mom Nancy Gaines, her voice breaking.
Just a few streets away lies the other school severely damaged by the storm: Brock Elementary. Though the outer shell of the building is in good enough condition that it can be restored, it will remain uninhabitable for at least two years, according to principal Rose Smith.
When she first went to check on Brock, she was dismayed by what she found.
“I looked in and couldn’t believe what I saw,” she remembered. “Everything was upside down.”
Unlike Williams and the Gaines family, Smith lost her home as well as the use of her school. She had to stay with relatives and then live in a FEMA trailer shortly after she came back to Slidell. She just moved out and into a townhouse, where she’ll stay until her home has been
“At first, like everyone else, I was in a state of shock,” Smith said.
But just as Williams had done, she set to work bringing her children back, hand-delivering the news that classes would be in session Oct. 3. Brock shared space at an unharmed elementary school nearby.
“It was very cramped, but they were very gracious. It was good for our kids to see some stability,” said Smith. “They lost so much, but still someone was there. They didn’t have to start all over with school.”
Brock has struggled to get its numbers back. Before the storm, it had 328 students from kindergarten through fifth grade; when school reopened there were only 84. Now there are 192, and it has its own temporary campus in trailers on the junior high school grounds.
“My entire population was affected. It was a very challenging time,” Smith said. “The children were a help to me, and in turn, I was a help to them. I didn’t think about it – it was so traumatic. I did what I had to do.”
One of the things she, her teachers and her counselors had to do was stay positive for the kids, who were clearly affected by the tragedy – some sketched pictures of wind and heavy rains during classroom drawing times. But they seemed comforted by the familiarity around them at
“We put on a happy, smiling face for the children,” Smith said. “The children handled it better than we thought they would.”
At Salmen High, where things are slowly getting back to the way they were, students have coped with the Katrina catastrophe with the help of the proverbial best medicine.
“We try to laugh about it,” said Allison. “There are a lot of FEMA trailer jokes, like ‘Hey, are you going to a FEMA party tonight?’”
“We try not to talk about it too much,” added her sister Amanda. “But you’ll remember it ‘til the day you die.”