BATON ROUGE, La. — Livingston Parish was one of the hardest hit areas by the historic flood event of August 2016 and Denham Springs Elementary was one of the schools most impacted.
“When we saw the classrooms, we knew everything was lost. The rooms were just destroyed,” said Gail DeLee, Denham Springs Elementary School Principal. The school is over 40 years old and the flood waters severely damaged the aging buildings and everything inside.
“My first visit to our campus was with my husband and my 16 year old son. It was very overwhelming,” said DeLee, principal at Denham Springs Elementary since January 2015. “The stench was horrible as the residue left behind contained river water, raw sewage, and chemicals. The kindergarten and pre-K rooms hit me the hardest as those students were scheduled to have their first day of school the day of the flood. We found a coffin on our campus which was also a bit disturbing.”
When the students were scheduled to return to class in mid-September they couldn’t return to Denham Springs Elementary so they were sent to three separate temporary campuses. Pre-K students and a special education class moved to one location, kindergarten through second graders at second location and third through fifth were at a third location. “The students were very anxious,” said DeLee, “Right after the flood, every time it would rain we would have to bring in counselors.”
DeLee was fortunate and didn’t experience damage to her personal property. This allowed her to focus on her flooded school, and her teachers and students who needed special attention in their personal road to recovery. “Fifty percent of the teachers, a total of 19, had homes that flooded,” said DeLee. The majority of her students also had flood-damaged homes. “Our student population was 524 before the flood and at last count all but 48 flooded,” said DeLee.
FEMA designated $3.3 million to the school for temporary facilities, allowing Denham Spring Elementary teachers and students to finally reunite at one campus beginning in early February. The temporary campus was built near Immaculate Conception Catholic Church off Hatchell Lane. The church entered into a zero-dollar lease with the Livingston Parish School District to move modular buildings on four acres of church property. “It’s going really well,” said DeLee,
“We’re just happy not to be on three separate campuses.” It’s been a positive move for teachers and students “They feel safe and comfortable here, except when bad weather comes through.”
To make up for missed time due to the flood each school day was expanded 21-minutes during the 2016-2017 school years. Though school days were longer, teachers made a big effort to eliminate stress to both students and parents. “We instituted no-homework and we did it for the whole year,” said DeLee, “Parents just have too many other important things to focus on.” During this school year homework will return but still be at a reduced amount.
“The students have done a good job moving on. They have adjusted to a new normal,” said DeLee. Although many of the students still have not returned to Denham Spring Elementary and they probably will never return to the area. “Our current enrollment is 465,” said DeLee. “I don’t expect all of the same students to come back because a lot of the students came from apartments.” Most apartment complexes have not been rebuilt.
In many ways life has changed since the flood, including zoning regulations to raise homes and buildings and new construction must be built higher, DeLee says the way her teachers think has also changed. “A rule of thumb for teachers is to store the least-used materials and supplies on the top shelf in the classroom. The more utilized materials are placed at the student’s level.” After the flood the only salvageable items at her school were tissues and paper towels. “So teachers have learned to put things of value up on the top shelf.”
There is no set date for the original Denham Springs Elementary school campus to be rebuilt and ready for business. “When we first flooded (in August) I truly believed by January our lives would be back to normal. You learn that things don’t happen as quickly as you hoped.” While they wait for that day to arrive teachers and student at Denham Springs Elementary remind each other of the motto that helps keep them going since the flood, “We’ll be back stronger than ever.”