NEWARK — For several weeks, Patty Glaser had been looking forward to the arrival of Aug. 29, 2005. It would be an exciting day, she thought, because that’s when the furniture for her schools’ brand-new library was scheduled to be delivered.
It did turn out to be a landmark day, but not for the reason she had expected, she told students at St. Michael School Oct. 23.
“The furniture was supposed to arrive on Aug. 29. Do you know what came instead?” asked the president of New Orleans’ Holy Rosary Academy and High School. “Katrina.”
Glaser visited St. Michael to thank students for their prayers and support and share her story with them. She brought with her Denise Theriot, head theology teacher at neighboring Cabrini High School in New Orleans. During their short stay in Wayne County, Glaser and Theriot also spoke at weekend liturgies at St. Michael Parish, St. Mary of the Lake Parish in Ontario, St. John the Evangelist Parish in Clyde and St. Patrick Parish in Savannah.
“(The visit) was basically to say ‘Thank you for what you’ve been doing, and don’t forget us,'” said Carol May, youth minister at St. Mary of the Lake.
Although Theriot and Glaser had never visited the Finger Lakes parishes or school before, they were hardly strangers to parishioners and students, who had “adopted” the New Orleans schools shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck, May said. Since then, parishioners and students have collected money and supplies for their New Orleans counterparts and made sure to keep them in their prayers, she added.
“When we first met them, we knew we wanted to bring them up sometime, it was just a matter of when,” she said.
When Glaser and Theriot visited St. Michael School, the students presented them with decorated cardboard socks and a promise to send them the results of their “Sock it to Katrina” loose-change collection.
Pauline DeCann, principal of St. Michael School, said she wanted her students to hear Theriot and Glaser recount their hurricane experiences. She wanted her students to know that even though the mass media and the nation have turned their attention to other matters, people in New Orleans continue to struggle.
“What we’re trying to do is help our students become aware of the situation in the New Orleans area and what they’re going through trying to rebuild their lives and rebuild their homes and schools. Then we want to try to form a connection through letter-writing or e-mail,” DeCann said. “We’re so far away from it that once you stop hearing about it on the news and stop reading about it in the paper, you tend to forget that these people are still going through a rebuilding and a loss.”
Glaser and Theriot were indeed able tell stories of loss and rebuilding. Both women evacuated before Katrina struck and were unable to return to their homes for months. Glaser is now back in her home but is still working on bringing it back to its pre-Katrina condition. Theriot had to gut her childhood home and until recently was sharing a small apartment with her sister’s family. She is now living in her own apartment.
Luckily, both Glaser and Theriot’s schools emerged from the hurricane with relatively minimal damage, they said.
“We had water all the way around our schools, but because our schools were on a ridge and because God was watching over us, we didn’t get water in the schools,” Glaser said.
The schools were reopened within three months, with classes resuming at the Holy Rosary schools Oct. 7, 2005, and at Cabrini High School Nov. 8, 2005. Although their schools reopened faster than many others in the area, it still was a long time for the students to be out of school, Glaser said.
“It’s as if a storm hit today, and you had to leave until December,” she told St. Michael students.
Although the schools have reopened, life is still vastly different than it used to be for their students, Glaser and Theriot said.
Roughly one-third of the 500 girls at Cabrini High School were able to return to homes that weren’t damaged by the storm, while another third couldn’t return home immediately because their houses were damaged, Theriot said. Many of those girls are still living in FEMA trailers or with friends and relatives while their houses are being repaired, she said. Another third lost their homes completely, and some students and families have left the New Orleans area.
“We have a lot of numbers of kids back, but a lot of the names and the faces have changed, so it’s kind of sad,” Glaser added.
Many Katrina survivors also are sad because they’ve lost such treasured personal items as family photographs, she said. When families evacuated ahead of the storm, most of them didn’t take many personal belongings because they didn’t realize they’d be gone for so long, or that their homes might not be there when they returned, Theriot added.
“We’ve evacuated at least once a year for the past few years. We (usually) just packed up our stuff and went away for three days,” she said. “Most of us this time were away for at least three weeks.”
Glaser asked the Newark students to think about what they would take if they had to pack up and leave with their family for a long time. Some things can be replaced, such as televisions, but others, such as baby pictures, cannot, she said.
Faced with such sadness and struggles, New Orleans residents have learned the importance of faith, spirituality and even humor, she noted.
“It’s very important to laugh, because sometimes you forget to laugh,” she said.
Theriot relied on humor to help her deal with the emotions she felt when she learned her house had been completely flooded.
“I said, ‘Look on the bright side. I always wanted waterfront property, and now I have it,'” she recalled.
When the flood waters receded and people returned to the city, they began helping each other, Theriot said. Many people helped their friends gut their houses, and others opened their homes to people who’d lost their own homes.
“What we’re learning is that God is using each one of us to show his love for us,” she said to the students. “You may not think what you did was a great big deal, but I have to tell you that … it means you’re allowing God to use you to love us.”