February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

As School Begins, Louisiana Endures Record Floods


Soldiers conduct evacuations by boat during severe flooding in Tickfaw, LA on August 13, 2016. Photo: Army National Guard

Soldiers conduct evacuations by boat in Tickfaw, LA on August 13, 2016. Photo: Army National Guard

Two feet of rain in two days, dumping over seven trillion gallons of water. Over a quarter million people affected, with 40,000 homes destroyed and countless residents forced into shelters. Sadly, this isn’t a rehashing of Katrina and Rita, two devastating storms that forever changed Louisiana in 2005. It’s the flood of 2016, exactly 11 years later, which hit early this month just as kids were getting ready for the new school year. The amount of water dropped on the state was three times that of Katrina.

With the news coverage of this tragedy somewhat overshadowed by newes about the Olympics in Rio and the contentious race for the White House, Louisiana is suffering again, this time in Baton Rouge and Lafayette—and at the worst possible time. School had just resumed in early August when the rain began. Then the rivers rose and homes started to flood. “It came down off and on during the day on Thursday [August 11], but then a torrential downpour started that evening and continued all night and the entire next day,” says Tiffany Whitehead, upper and middle school librarian at Episcopal School in Baton Rouge. Whitehead returned to work on August 22, albeit under challenging circumstances. “Four world language classes are being housed in the library until their classrooms are restored. Everyone is working hard to overcome the obstacles faced by having a number of classrooms out of use. We are just thankful to be able to return to school and have some sense of normalcy for our students and faculty members,” Whitehead reports.

On Saturday, August 13, the Comite river crested at over 34 feet and the Amite river in Denham Springs hit 46 feet, the highest it’s ever been. Chrystal Gauthreaux, the librarian at Eastside Elementary School in Denham Springs, lives in Baton Rouge. She reports that 15 of the 46 schools in the district were flooded. “We started school on August 4, but have been out since the 12th.” The rain finally eased up on August 14.

Although some districts remain closed indefinitely (including one whose superintendent is living in a shelter), Louisiana state superintendent John White has said that most should reopen in two weeks, according to a Washington Post report. The biggest challenge in reopening schools is the fact that teachers and other essential personnel are themselves displaced.

The flood of 2016 wasn’t caused by hurricanes, as in 2005, but the feeling in Louisiana is eerily similar. “Back then we had panicked parents searching for housing and schools for their children,” says Tanya Bares, the librarian at St. James Episcopal Day School in downtown Baton Rouge. “This current situation is like a flashback to a very uncertain time 11 years ago.” Bares adds that her campus didn’t take on water, but the homes of many faculty, staff, and students were affected.

“We’re now dealing with a huge amount of backwater flooding because there’s no place for this rain to go,” says Whitehead. The homes of her parents, grandparents, and brother were all flooded. Whitehead’s school also sustained damage, including the foreign language department, two gyms, and classrooms attached to these buildings. “The school library at nearby Tanglewood Elementary, where I used to work, was flooded with nearly two feet of water,” she adds.

Water continues to creep up in both the St. James parish, which is south of Baton Rouge, and in parts of Acadiana, west of the city, explains Bares. “We still don’t know the extent of the loss, but experts are saying it could be worse than Katrina.” After a whole summer of working hard to get schools ready for kids, coping with the flood of 2016 has been overwhelming for school teachers and librarians. “I cannot imagine the heartbreak of so many who lost both their homes and their classrooms,” says Whitehead. For now, says Bares, the goal is to provide students a safe place to learn, even though where they are living may not be their home.

Meanwhile, schools are assessing the damage. Last week, officials returned to Cristo Rey Baton Rouge Franciscan High School, which took on almost four feet of water in its buildings, including a wing that had only just been spruced up with new paint and wallboard, according to news reports. The library was also overrun by hundreds of worms, covering the carpets. Officials at this high school and other affected institutions are in the process of finding temporary locations to hold classes.

Bares reports that the American Library Association, the American Association of School Libraries, and the Louisiana Library Association are mobilizing to determine which school libraries were hit the hardest. “It’s been a tough summer in Baton Rouge, with a lot of tension, but I’m proud of our city and how the community has come together to help during this disaster,” says Whitehead.

While many schools are not equipped at the moment to receive donations of books, Truman Early Education Center in Lafayette is, as Kate Messner reports. Cash donations can be made to the Red Cross, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, or Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana.

Editor Jennifer Kelly Geddes is a New York City mom of two who writes regularly for Parents.com and Highlights.



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