Maria Niebuhr, first year principal of St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic School in Naples, Florida, sits behind her desk in an office filled with boxes stacked on boxes, placed on a floor stripped away to bare concrete.
As she holds two pictures showing the $1 million in damages the school sustained from Hurricane Irma, the sound of a screw gun pierces the air as its drilled into a nearby wall.
This is the new normal for St. Elizabeth Seton.
The pre-K3 through eighth-grade school lost power for two weeks during the storm and was forced to remain closed for three and a half weeks, longer than every other school under the Diocese of Venice.
Students young enough to enjoy a daily nap must do so on blankets placed on bare concrete. Black plastic has been placed over areas where the drywall was ruined. In several classrooms, entire walls are covered with it.
Maria Crowley has been teaching at Seton for 28 years. Her kindergarten classroom is lined with the black plastic. Underneath her desk, a large chunk of concrete is missing.
When Irma was bearing down, Crowley was ready. She stored things out of reach of the flooding. When the rain stopped and the wind passed, she showed up to sweep water out of her room.
“I just fear what happens if we have another hurricane,” Crowley says. “But we’ll do what we have to do.”
In Seton’s main building that houses pre-K3 through fifth grade, as well as the media center, everything had to be moved out, boxed up, put into the gymnasium and manually scrubbed down before being brought back inside.
The damage is extensive. Every classroom needs a combination of new ceilings, drywall and lighting fixtures. Outdoor bulletin board glass casings went flying during the storm, never to return. In the school’s courtyard, old bricks that once surrounded a statue of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton were rearranged by Mother Nature, while the statue was moved by work crews. Niebuhr says she still is still dealing with leaks nearly every day.
While insurance will cover the costly damages, the school is trying to recoup its $100,000 deductible to make other repairs that have long plagued it. Years of quick fixes left the 36-year-old school more vulnerable when Irma struck as a Category 2 hurricane on Sept. 10.
The rebuilding plan is to place all the students in portable classrooms so repairs and enhancements can be done simultaneously. It could take several months to complete all the work.
Despite all this, Niebuhr remains impressed by the resilience of her students.
“The children become immune to it, but it’s sad,” she says. “We’ve got to move forward with all of this.”
Annabel Krystaszek is a bright-eyed, 8-year-old in Erin Lanigan’s third-grade class. Her family had no power for a week and lost a big tree in her yard; Annabel loved the tree. To deal with the stifling heat, her family left their doors and windows open.
“It felt weird being out of school,” Annabel says. “I was happy to get math and spelling homework.”
Adaora Obidiegwu , 12, said Irma was the first hurricane she has experienced. The seventh-grader said her family lost power for about three weeks.
“I was scared when the storm came,” she says. “I didn’t like being out of school much. It was a little bit of a break, but I missed it.”
Irma might have battered Seton, but the school’s spirit has not been dampened. Upon returning to school, every child received a yellow #SetonStrong hard hat. A relaxed dress code on Fridays allows students to wear jeans and their #SetonStrong T-shirts.
In the spirit of solidarity, several Catholic schools across the country, including some as far away as Illinois and Connecticut, have “adopted” Seton and have raised money for its cause. An anonymous California benefactor sent a $5,000 check, while St. Joseph Catholic School in Bradenton held a fundraiser for St. Seton while repairing damages of its own.
One of the bulletin boards near Seton’s courtyard that was spared damage is lined with letters of support and drawings sent from a school in Hawaii.
In Irma’s aftermath, Seton students created an art project that involved coloring and branding rocks with the #SetonStrong motto and placing them throughout the community. The project caught the attention of the Naples Daily News, which ran a feature story about the positive vibes the project spread through the city.
St. Elizabeth Seton is battered, but Niebuhr says its spirit cannot be broken.
“Everyone here cares about each other,” she says. “The heart of the school is in each and every one of these teachers and students. We are Seton Strong regardless of what happens here. We have pride in who we are.”
David Hudson Tuthill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By GEOFF FOX
Dawn Baker, principal of Temple Christian School in North Fort Myers, Florida, struggled to remain stoic as she gave a tour of her school, which was badly damaged when Hurricane Irma ripped through the area in September.
She had already shown us what was once the library, where there were no shelves or books, just an exposed concrete floor and lots of missing drywall.
The scene, three months after Category 2 winds plowed through the area, was similar in all six classrooms, some of which were used to store the facility’s damaged toilets, sinks and other plumbing items. In some rooms at the private, pre-K-3 through 12 school, smoke alarms hung by wires from ceilings.
At least some drywall in every room was removed with up to five feet of it gone in some areas.
A musty smell permeated the premises.
Because of damage, the school’s front office was moved to a hallway and the staff nursery was moved into a pastor’s office; the school is part of Temple Baptist Church.
Third through 12th graders were being taught at six large tables in the cafeteria.
Outside, two portable toilets used by older students stood near the front entrance, a fence was damaged and a scoreboard across the athletic field lay twisted and crumpled.
“We never dreamed there would be this much damage,” said Baker, who is in her second year as the school’s principal. “We figured we’d be back in business after a few days. We weren’t prepared for the ramifications. It’s been very stressful for everybody.”
Damages to the building were estimated at around $240,000; the school’s deductible is $35,000, and Dawn Baker said she doesn’t know how the school will raise that amount.
Unfortunately, she said, a former church official had removed contents from its insurance policy just before the hurricane hit.
School officials have been working with an insurance company, but it is still not clear how much money the school will have to raise or when the work might be completed.
Despite the number of lower-income families at the school, Baker said some of them have contributed money to the rebuilding efforts.
She paused as she relayed that information and her eyes welled with tears.
“It’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what we need,” she said. ““Right now, we just survive and keep going and keep the students’ needs met.”
The church was built in 1975 and repair work must adhere to stricter, costlier codes.
But the school’s most urgent needs relate to student seating. Thanks to Irma, the school lost all of its cubicle-like work stations where students could work individually and with less disruption.
Baker has found sources that can provide three-paneled desks for $300 each or computer carrels for $100 apiece, but money would remain an issue. Fifty desks at $300 is $15,000, while the carrels would cost $5,000.
Teacher Chet Baker, Dawn Baker’s husband, said he knew there would be big problems when they visited the school after the storm passed.
“The water was up in the back of the building, just gushing through the doors and going everywhere,” he said.
After Irma, school was out for two weeks.
As the Bakers worried about when the school will be renovated and how it will be paid for, teachers and students went about the business of learning.
In a first- and second-grade classroom, teacher Evelyn Kennedy was in the midst of a reading lesson. She pointed to the word knot.
“Do you hear the K? What do we hear instead?” Kennedy asked.
“The N,” several students said in unison.
She then went over the “onk” sound in the word honk, the “unk” in trunk and the Y sound in baby.
When Dawn Baker opened a door to the cafeteria, the din of dozens of third through 12th graders spilled into the hallway.
“This is the struggle, but what do you expect?” she said. “I’m surprised at how much progress I’m still seeing. It’s miraculous to me, because it gets pretty noisy. If I can’t concentrate in here sometimes, how can the kids?”
Amid the noise, high school teacher Jason Yeargin was teaching pre-geometry to eight-graders and Algebra I and II to high school students. Yeargin said his students have adapted well under the unforeseen circumstances.
“We do physical science in the hallway, but there are always a whole bunch of interruptions,” he said. “Students go outside for free time, and you can’t get outside without going through the hallway.”
Despite its challenges, the school is still participating in an annual Toys for Tots Christmas toy drive and working on a small Christmas production to be performed near the holiday. The program will include five carols, ending with “Silent Night.”
Baker was determined to forge on.
There wasn’t much choice.
“We’re trying to keep it simple,” she said, “but even now I’m feeling super overwhelmed.”
Geoff Fox can be reached at GFox@sufs.org.