Hurricane Katrina recovery paradox reflected in New Orleans schools

Hurricane Katrina recovery paradox reflected in New Orleans schools
August 27, 2009
by Sarah Carr
The Times-Picayune

Earlier this week, a who's who of state and city officials, from Gov. Bobby Jindal to Mayor Ray Nagin, gathered to dedicate the first new public school building to open in New Orleans since Katrina.

Inside Langston Hughes Academy, a light-filled atrium led the way to the hallways and classrooms of a state-of-the-art building whose magnificence was unimaginable among New Orleans' crop of public schools five years ago, many of them already decaying. Completed in less than two years, the fast-tracked project crystallized the city's progress since Katrina.

A few miles away, in the heart of the city and across the street from the well-trafficked criminal court complex, a staircase covered with stinking takeout food containers, swarms of flies, underwear and broken strings of Mardi Gras beads leads the way into the Israel Augustine Middle School building.

If Langston Hughes represents progress, Israel Augustine -- largely untouched over the past four years, except by squatters -- represents its opposite.

From the classroom with music notes still illustrating the single-stroke drum roll to the clocks whose hands stopped at 5:10 when the power went out, the building evokes a city and people who remain, in some ways, frozen in time.

It's the paradox of the city's recovery. So much has been done. And so little. So many people have, against the odds, returned. But many more never will. We've moved on with our lives. But we're still stuck.

Even a cursory trek around town reveals these contradictions: The blocks in Gentilly or eastern New Orleans where newly rebuilt homes border flood-ravaged, gutted ones; the sides of homes where fresh blooms only partially cover FEMA markings made in the days after the flood.

Some of the most haunting reminders can be found in New Orleans' empty school buildings, a number of which remain in limbo as school officials negotiate with the Federal Emergency Management Agency about damage levels. In the meantime, as the district embarks on an unprecedented rebuilding program, dozens of other schools sit largely untouched, festering.

A squatter's home

Drivers heading up Broad Street past Israel Augustine still see a crooked sign with lettering that reads: "School starts Aug. 18, 2005 8:00 A.M." The district boarded up the front door, but a ratty chair placed by an open side window provided easy access to the building earlier this month.
Michael DeMocker/The Times-PicayuneIsrael M. Augustine Middle School stands untouched since the storm.

Inside the first room, piles of garbage left by squatters -- takeout containers, tall boys, sleeping bags, moldy clothes and pillows -- coated every inch of the floor. Squatters also plundered the building of its riches, pulling apart appliances and ceiling tiles for the copper wiring inside. They broke into trophy containers, placing them in random spots throughout the building -- like the middle of the grand auditorium's stage -- shiny and jarring talismans from the past.

Yet many other features stood intact, like instructions scrawled on chalkboards, including the sample paper heading one teacher posted, or the phrase "Education is the basis of the future" written in both English and Spanish.

In the school's relatively undisturbed auditorium, the paint curled as it peeled off the wall near a cracked mirror. Dust and plaster coated rows of chairs. A tattered, fraying stage curtain hung forlornly.

The sound of dripping water echoed throughout the building, and the smell of stale food and fresh decay -- from both wood and dead rodents -- filled the air.

In one upstairs classroom, a squatter sat shirtless on a pillow, surrounded by a blanket, jugs of water, a bucket and takeout containers. He said he has stayed there off and on over the past two years, usually with a girlfriend. Work building and remodeling houses slowed a couple years after Katrina, making it harder to afford a safe place to stay. And without a picture ID he can't find jobs at all anymore.

The man said most of the squatters leave each other alone. One, named Marty, has lived in Israel Augustine for two years, turning a third-floor classroom into a kind of home, he said.

Haggling with FEMA

Shamus Rohn, director of Unity's Abandoned Buildings Outreach Project, said untouched, unsecured school buildings can be found throughout the city.

"What . . . bothers me is you walk around them and hit all kinds of really confidential personal documents of kids, like birth certificates and Social Security cards lying out in the open."

"You see them deteriorating over time, so we will lose them if something doesn't happen soon, " he added.
Michael DeMocker/The Times-PicayuneAn assignment written three days before Hurricane Katrina struck fades away this week on a blackboard at Signature High School on South Rocheblave.

Ramsey Green, the Recovery School District's chief operating officer, estimates the district has 40 empty and unused school buildings around the city. But he says the district keeps the grounds landscaped -- and tries to secure the buildings.

"Augustine is definitely one of the schools that we know gets infiltrated, " he said. "Our folks are aware of it, and we do the best we can to protect it. But there are people out there who will go in whether it's boarded up or not."

Dozens of old schools will be demolished or converted to other uses, like community centers, in the coming months and years, Green said. But both processes take time, he added, and the district has to slog through negotiations with FEMA over the extent of the damage, and then go through detailed planning processes.

Several buildings are in limbo as the district haggles with FEMA over whether they meet the 50 percent damage threshold required for the agency to pay the cost of a new building.

"We are keeping up a number of these buildings because we are trying to get FEMA to agree to 51 percent damages, " said RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas. "If we do that, we get full replacement cost and get the money to demolish them."
Michael DeMocker/The Times-PicayuneIsrael M. Augustine Middle School is not slated to be demolished, and the Recovery School District will likely hand it over to the Orleans Parish School Board sometime in the next few months.

Vallas pointed out that the facilities master plan is largely financed with FEMA money, not city or state school construction programs. "To tear down a building that has been boarded up four or five times, you risk losing millions of dollars."

And money to secure the building in the meantime could go to support the children at active schools, Vallas adds. "It becomes a choice between a classroom or a building, and the classroom is going to win."

The district has demolished eight school buildings, and will demolish another 13 in the next six months. Israel Augustine is not slated to be demolished, and the RSD will likely hand it over to the Orleans Parish School Board sometime in the next few months, Green said.

An open door

While it takes some effort to get into Israel Augustine, several of the main doors to Central City's "new" Orleans Parish Signature High School Centers -- as a welcome sign states -- are unlocked and unboarded.

The classrooms contain signs of past parties, with heaps of cigarette butts surrounded by cans of Red Bull and a shattered Heineken bottle. On some doors, visitors have scrawled human-like figures and then used them as target practice with nail guns.

One room, with a sign warning, "Do not touch Mrs. McLain's things, " was particularly barren: looters smashed the ceiling tiles, pulled apart the air-conditioning unit, and yanked out the outlet to get every last bit of valuable wiring.

They left, however, dirty mounds of student papers in the library and guidance office with individual LEAP scores and report cards that showed which students, for instance, had failed world geography.

One chalkboard introduced students to the now-infamous "I CAN Learn" algebra program -- the one sold by Mose Jefferson, who last week was found guilty of bribing a School Board member for her help in getting the board to buy it. Another listed three emergency numbers students could call, presumably in the event that Katrina turned serious.

And one tattered sign offered the high schoolers this advice:

"Don't let the rain stop you, or even slow you down."
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