It remains one of the true miracles of post-Katrina New Orleans.
Situated three-quarters of a mile from the gaping hole punched by Katrina in the 17th Street Canal, Mount Carmel Academy took on more than eight feet of water.
Like the rest of Lakeview and beyond, the school looked doomed.
And yet, on Jan. 17, 2006 – just 141 days after Katrina – Sister of Mount Carmel Camille Anne Campbell, Mount Carmel’s president, welcomed back to a pristinely refurbished campus 800 of the 1,038 students who had started the academic year.
Sister Camille Anne and principal Beth Ann Simno were in Atlanta for an educational seminar when Katrina struck, so their first view came from the Internet.
“It was an aerial view,” Sister Camille Anne said. “We saw the roofs of our buildings with water up to the front entrance canopy. It was dismay. It was just like, ‘This isn’t us.’ I found myself crying, tears just rolling down my face. I’m not the kind of person who cries or is easily overwhelmed.”
“It was overwhelming sadness,” added Simno. “And not just for us but for the city.”
Where to turn?
Sister Camille Anne remembers being flooded immediately with mixed emotions.
“The first thing I said is, ‘We’re going to sell the school,’” Sister Camille Anne said. “But Beth Ann told me, ‘It’s not your school, you can’t sell it.’ I got over that feeling.”
A few days after the storm, Mount Carmel’s webmaster, Brian Cosse, was able to commandeer a boat and make his way to the school, where he hopped out and walked into the second floor of the main classroom building, which was untouched. That was the first sign of hope.
“It seemed possible then,” Sister Camille Anne said.
By the time she could assess the damage first-hand in mid-September, Sister Camille Anne, in her tennis shoes and slacks, saw the school still sitting in 2-3 feet of water. A National Guardsman asked if she wanted him to break down the front door.
“No, I have my keys,” she said, smiling.
“When I walked in the front door, greeting me was the fax machine from two offices over,” Sister Camille Anne recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this isn’t good.’ Desks were turned upside down. But the amazing thing was not one statue on our property toppled over. We had a statue of the Blessed Mother that was dirty and full of marsh grass, but she was in her place. And that statue is so light an eighth-grader can carry it. Not one statue was harmed, except that we had to bathe them.”
From Baton Rouge, the Mount Carmel administration worked its telephone and email tree to keep track of the whereabouts of faculty and students and keep them informed about the situation.
“We called a meeting in Baton Rouge in early October because that was where the largest number of families were,” Sister Camille Anne recalled. “We told them our plans were to reopen the school in January. Then we held the Senior Ring Mass at St. Catherine of Siena, and we told the girls when we reopen, there will be grass and flowers. Beth Ann had the idea of spreading winter grass. We didn’t want everything looking like World War II.”
But there was a complication. In the early stages of the recovery, Sister Camille Anne was hospitalized with a heart condition. She was in her hospital room in late September when Simno came in and told her the only chance of reopening the school in January was for workers to drill an 800-foot well that would provide a source of clean water for the clean-up.
The cost: $26,000. Simno didn’t tell Sister Camille Anne the price.
“It’s a good thing they talked to Beth Ann,” Sister Camille Ann said. “She just said, ‘Yes, build it.’”
Staying in touch
While the workers were toiling nearly around the clock, Sister Camille Anne and Simno traveled around Louisiana and Texas to the cities where many of their students had relocated.
“We told them even if we had to double up, we would create a way for them to meet the state (educational) requirements,” Sister Camille Anne said.
Reflecting on the journey of 10 years ago, Sister Camille Anne said it was a privilege for the school to be a sign of God’s hope to the school and the entire city.
“It was amazing,” she said. “Actually, it was a beautiful outpouring of God’s grace. It just seemed to turn everybody back toward God. We found out things don’t matter – relationships do. The primary relationships we have are with our God who creates us, with Jesus who redeems us and with the Holy Spirit who gives us the smarts to make this all happen.
“We heard over and over again from our faculty the great hope that they had. If we could do what we did in the time that we did it, they could, too. It was blind faith – nothing but faith.”
The mystery of suffering can be explained only by faith, she said.
“What was an apparent curse in God’s plan for the city and for us contained a blessing,” she said. “If we have faith and hope and continue to do the best that we can, all will be well. That’s how I looked at it.
“What was a terrible thing, in a way, ended up being a blessing. We got the school repaired. We had upgrades. We have a whole new AC and heating system that’s elevated 15 feet in the air.”
Ever the pragmatist, Sister Camille Anne stopped herself short.
“Of course, if that gets wet, nobody’s coming back!”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.