Caroline and Senator Kennedy, trustees of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and members of the selection committee, thank you for this incredible honor.
I am truly humbled and am in awe of my surroundings, of this audience, and of the fact that I would ever be honored along side such an outstanding humanitarian and statesman as Mayor Bill White of Houston.
Much has been said, written, televised, and scripted not only about the continued recovery of the St. Bernard Parish public schools, but about the recovery of the entire Gulf Coast area. There have been tales of the heroic, tales of the poor and suffering, tales of the forgotten and the abandoned. But there have also been stories of remarkable resilience, stories of courage, stories of hope, and stories of new and promising futures to come.
And that is our story - a simple one of ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances. When John Kennedy, during his presidential campaign, was asked by a young boy, “how did you become a war hero?” he replied, “it was involuntary; they sank my boat.” I have a similar reaction. Certainly, none of this was voluntary. Katrina and those engineers who were responsible for the faulty design of our levees destroyed my schools, drowned some of my neighbors, and devastated my entire community.
On August 29, 2005, every home, every school, every church and every business in our community suffered massive damage, and Katrina forever changed the lives of a very close-knit, hard working, middle class community of 68,000 people.
By now, you have heard many times over of the unbelievable wall of water that inundated St. Bernard Parish. The principal of Chalmette High School, Wayne Warner, and his assistant Cookie Mundt and I, along with our finance officer David Fernandez, our transportation director Kathy Gonzales and our former superintendent Frank Auderer will forever remember the frantic pace at which we had to prepare our shelter residents to move to the second floor of our building lest they drown in the flood waters.
We were forced by rising water to lead or carry over 250 people, many in wheelchairs, on oxygen, on ventilators, in need of dialysis, in various stages of dementia, to the second floor of our building…and then we watched in horror as we found ourselves surrounded by a lake, hearing cries for help all around us echoing from neighborhood roof tops. Thankfully, the water leveled at about 8 feet, but, by then, we had lost most of our provisions to the murky waters.
Then the boats came. I wish I could say it was the military or the guard or some such agency that had responded to our devastation, but it was our own people. Those hearty people of St. Bernard who live off the land began a rescue operation of unfathomable proportions. By nightfall, over 1200 people were in our school, as we pulled them in through second story windows after our neighbors’ boats docked at the tops of our covered walkways - 1200 people who were tired, hungry, and without dry clothes, all huddled together, all frightened and in a state of shock, each relying on a small band of educators to chart their course of survival. There were no riots; there were no disruptions; there were just hundreds of people just like you and the person sitting next to you who, in the blink of an eye, lost everything they had worked for over their entire lifetimes, who now looked to us for rescue. And we accepted that responsibility……. because that’s what school people do.
By late Wednesday, we marched over 1200 people through thigh-deep water about a mile and a half to a staging area on the Mississippi River levee, where we hoped state and federal government agencies would eventually come to our rescue with a means of evacuation. Our elderly and infirm had been boated to a makeshift medical site in an abandoned building where the water had receded earlier. And by Thursday, after escaping in a crew boat on the Mississippi River with 25 other people, I was en route to Baton Rouge to begin the process of rebuilding our school system.
And there, I believe, our story and our purpose here really begins. Within one week, in temporary offices in Baton Rouge, we were operating with a borrowed computer, preparing to issue a payroll, contacting employees through donated internet space, begging our legislators for immediate funding since our entire local tax base had been wiped out, trying to secure a community disaster loan and providing student academic and immunization records to parents who were scattered throughout the United States. Admittedly, we were in a state of professional and personal shock, but our focus remained clear – the reopening of the St. Bernard Parish Public Schools.
It soon became obvious that our first responders and essential parish personnel who had never left, and our returning oil and sugar refinery workers who were living in river barges and travel trailers wanted to bring their families home. My promise, my pledge to them was to provide educational services to the first child who returned to St. Bernard Parish. We had to open school or our families could not return – we had to open school or our community would die – we had to open school because that’s what school people do.
In September, we had begun discussions with FEMA about the cleaning and recovery of our buildings and the need for temporary housing for our school’s essential staff. We were, at first, comforted to know that the full resources of the most powerful nation in the world were at our disposal. But, as our discussions progressed, it became more than clear that we were on our own. Our government had failed us. Promises of portable classroom buildings within 90 days, secured through a “mission assignment” to the army corps of engineers, were broken. No housing for our teachers could be quickly secured by FEMA, and cleaning the muck, debris, and marsh remnants from our buildings was a task that would be ours.
So we forged ahead without help from the state or federal governments, locating our own portable classrooms and housing trailers, sealing deals with a hand-shake in parking lots of uninhabitable buildings, securing our own national disaster clean-up team, and relying on our own people – Bev Lawrason, my associate superintendent, who worked at my side; Ronnie Alonzo, who was my scavenger, my man in the field; Albert Carey, a trusted friend and architect who I called out of retirement; and our principals and administrators who salvaged the very few instructional materials that were undamaged on second-floor buildings. We had no patience for excuses, for bureaucracy, or for any obstacles that would delay our reopening.
And reopen we did. On November 14, 2005, just 11 weeks after the storm and only 3 and a half weeks after we took matters into our own hands, we welcomed 334 students in portable classroom trailers on the football field parking lot, and our teachers lived across the street in 240 square foot travel trailers on the grounds of an abandoned elementary school. By December we had doubled in enrollment. By January, we were the only normalcy for 1500 students, and we ended the school year with 2460. We cooked hot food with makeshift equipment, fed children in tents, ran after school programs until dark, and transported children home each day to sleep in tents, 8’ x 29’ travel trailers, concrete floors of houses with no electricity and sometimes in the backs of pick-up trucks. This past August we opened two sites to 3400 students, and next school year we will open five schools to a projected enrollment in excess of 4000. We have worked very hard and very long to honor our commitment of rebuilding with pride.
Ladies and gentlemen, I, alone stand before you to accept this award; but the educators of the St. Bernard Parish Public School System merit the significance of this moment.
In August, we will open the new school year with the theme, “the courage to lead.” As we rebuild our homes in St. Bernard, as we put our hard-earned dollars back into our community’s struggling businesses, as we rebuild state-of-the art true community learning centers with not only education but daycare, after school programs, meeting rooms for community groups, a school-based health care center for our children, a library that is accessible to our entire community, and a commitment from Exxon Mobil to assist us in this endeavor – we are proud to take the lead in rebuilding because we are determined that our community will not die; because we are determined that our community will again be the typical, vibrant, safe community in which to raise a family; and because St. Bernard is and will always be our home.
Prior to Katrina, we lived on streets where we knew our neighbors; we didn’t fear walking our community at night; we nurtured our flower gardens and worked at tree-lined boulevards; we made our houses home. Why? Because our intention was to live the good and decent lives known to small-town America and the spirit of our community was united in that endeavor.
Ms. Kennedy, Senator, your father and brother once pointed out to us that the Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word “crisis.” One brush stroke stands for danger, the other for opportunity. John Kennedy encouraged us all that we should, in a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.
Out of all adversity rises strength and determination, and if we have learned nothing else these past 20 months, it is that the only guarantee in life is change but that through change we can become, especially together, stronger and more determined. We were scattered to the corners of this nation through no fault of our own but we made it back home to begin again.
Before Katrina, home was, for many of us, a place where we parked our cars, a roof to keep out the rain, four walls to keep out the wind, and a floor to keep out the cold. But the people of St. Bernard Parish have redefined home for an entire nation because now we know that home is the warmth of loving hearts, lights from happy eyes, loyalty, comradeship and love…..where the children are… that is home.
To that end, we call upon congress and our national leadership:
1) to close the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet which is contributing to the destruction of our wetlands and jeopardizing the lives and safety of our people;
2) to rebuild our federal levees to withstand a Category 5 Hurricane;
3) to pass the recovery measures in the emergency spending bill to ensure adequate resources to reestablish our way of life; and
4) to put pressure on the insurance industry to settle fairly with our citizens and to offer them affordable insurance coverage.
So I gratefully accept this award today on behalf of all of those who have returned home; on behalf of each member of our school family who was determined and had the courage to be a part of leading the rebuilding effort in our community; on behalf of school people every where.
For you see, creating opportunity where there once was challenge – that’s what school people do.
Those in the audience who are members of our staff, please stand. Thank you to each of you. I accept this only on your behalf. To my family members who continue to worry about me and each of us, thank you for your prayers, your love and your understanding. Thank you, Mayor White, for accepting our friends and neighbors. And thank you to the members of the John. F. Kennedy Library Foundation Award Committee for recognizing our commitment to our home – the St. Bernard Parish public schools.
May god bless us all.
# # # Delivered by St. Bernard Parish School Superintendent Doris Voitier on receiving the 2007 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, May 21, 2007.
Click here to watch the Acceptance Speech by Doris Voiter posted on YouTube. (Part 1)
& (Part II)