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Livingston Parish Schools Still Recovering Post-Flood

Over a third of the public schools in Livingston Parish were damaged by the flooding in Southeast Louisiana last August. While some of those schools have been repaired, others still haven't been able to reopen - like Southside Junior High School, where classes began this new year at a new site - for now. Wallis Watkins reports.

As students settle into Mr. Ivy’s 8th grade Louisiana History class, Principal Wes Partin makes morning announcements.

“We want to welcome all our students back and we’re looking forward to a great spring semester here at our school."

The new Southside Junior High sits in a field behind Juban Parc Junior High. After the flood, Southside had been sharing that facility, going to school from 12:30 in the afternoon till 5:30 in the evening. Their new campus is made up of a series of temporary buildings, all connected by a walkway. Fitting for the home of the Buccaneers, says Partin.

“If you look at it, it’s perfect, it’s all raised boardwalks made out of wood, looks like a boardwalk heading out to the beach, really."

And while the space feels like a campus, it certainly isn’t permanent. During the flood, the original school took on nearly six feet of water. Right now, it sits gutted and empty. The Livingston Parish School System is working with FEMA to determine what they’ll do with it.

“If it’s going to cost more than fifty percent of the value to fix the school, they would encourage us to rebuild, versus restructure," says Rick Wentzel, school district Superintendent. Three Livingston schools are still in this state of limbo. Before they can move forward, the school district has to go through every single room on every campus, detailing the damage. Drywall, electrical outlets, furniture, floor tiles, ceiling tiles.

“We have to go in and show all the things that were damaged within that room that we would have to repair to return back to that facility,” Wentzel says. “Every room on that campus. So you can see that’s not gonna be just a quick process.” Wentzel says just about all the information has been collected. “Once we get that together, we’ve got to present that to FEMA and go through it with them room-by-room.”

Whatever FEMA decides - whether to repair the campus or build a new one - it will be over a year before Southside Junior High is back in a permanent location. “If they’ll allow us to restructure the original facility, we’ll do that as soon as we can get started, take us probably about 18 months. But if we have to rebuild, it’s gonna be 3-4 years.”

A decision is expected - hopefully - within sixty days. Principal Partin says it’s an uncertainty that most at Southside have had to deal with. “Most of the homes of students took on water," Partin said. "Me being the principal, I took on water just like everybody else. And our teachers did too.”

Like Leanne Payne, a math teacher. Nearly everything in her home was lost in the flood. “We saved an 8x10 cargo trailer, about half full is all we got,” Payne said. All the while, she’s returned to the classroom - trying to make things feel closer to normal for her students. “You had to address it head on - you can’t treat it like the big white elephant in the room. You had to ask them ‘how’s the sheetrock coming? How’s it going with y’all? Hey, have you got paint up yet, have you got cabinets?’ You had to ask them so it felt normal to them.”

Payne was one of six hundred and fifty employees in Livingston Parish who suffered flood damage at home. And Wentzel estimates thirty to thirty-five percent of its students were impacted. For the most part, they’ve returned back to the Parish and their school. “We had, prior to the flood, 26,000 students,” Wentzel said. “We’re down a little bit, we have about 25,600 now.” He expects more students to come back.

The future of Southside Junior High’s campus is still undecided, but Wentzel does say this: any new buildings will have cinderblock walls and concrete floors. “Easier to clean, easier to get back into.” Which means less disruption to the students if a flood like this happens again.

This report was made possible by the Louisiana Public Radio Partnership, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Wallis Watkins is a Baton Rouge native. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Philosophy from Louisiana State University in 2013. Soon after, she joined WRKF as an intern and is now reporting on health and health policy for Louisiana's Prescription.

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