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Finding Hope and Community

After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in September 2005, debris was everywhere. No matter where you drove, you could see the dark, oily line where the water had risen.

Article by Beth Patin November 15, 2017 //   6 minute read
The Gulf Coast School Library Recovery Initiative awarded more than $6 million in grants to 124 schools in the Gulf Coast area. Mrs. Bush visited Warren Easton Charter High School, one of the grant recipients, on the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katri

Beth Patin is the former librarian at Holy Cross School for Boys in Louisiana. 

After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in September 2005, debris was everywhere. No matter where you drove, you could see the dark, oily line where the water had risen. And, there was a smell. The smell of death and decay permeated everywhere.

As I drove up to Holy Cross School for Boys in the Lower Ninth Ward, the devastation took my breath away. The gym was completely demolished and there was a water line above the windows on the first floor of the buildings. Offices and classrooms were filled with dirt, garbage, dead animals, and fish. Lockers were rusty and moldy, and the disgusting black line went half way up the second flight of stairs. When I saw the library, my heart skipped a beat. Broken windows, roof tiles, and debris were everywhere. I knew it was going to be a long time before the library and school would be ready for students.

However, we were determined to bring Holy Cross back. We opened a temporary school in Baton Rouge using a school building from 4:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. after the regular students of the school finished classes. Our students and some faculty took an hour-and-a-half bus ride each way, just to be a part of our community.

By January 2006, Holy Cross received trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and began operating out of its Lower Ninth Ward campus parking lot. I talked to my principal and pleaded for a job so I could still work at Holy Cross. Like everyone else, I knew I had to be part of the rebuilding but there was no role for a librarian. So I talked to my principal and pleaded for a job. He finally hired me as his secretary.

The school year passed and through the summer we worked to salvage what we could. At the end of summer, a position opened to teach ninth grade English and American College Testing (ACT) preparation. I was grateful to get this job because I was a terrible secretary.

When the 2006 to 2007 school year began my classroom trailer was an IT site, admissions office, guidance department, and computer lab. There was no physical space for our school library, so I created a “cybrary.”

I begged online book companies for free subscriptions, and organized websites that would entertain the students and help teachers with the curriculum. I also began to go back into the buildings to look for supplies and books, and whatever I could salvage found a home in my trailer. Eventually we had four bookcases, two spinning shelves, and almost 200 books. However, students no longer had toys, video games, sports equipment, or games: They needed distractions and the few books we had were not cutting it.

So during the days I taught English, pillaged books, and looked for funding sources online. At night I wrote grant proposals. The first grant I submitted was to the Laura Bush Foundation (LBF) requesting almost $30,000 to purchase new books. 

In April 2007, former Director of San Diego County Libraries and member of the LBF advisory committee Jose Aponte came to interview me. I showed Jose my trailer and took him to see our old library. Although I believed we had saved some books, Jose pointed out that the volumes were beginning to grow mold; the entire collection was a complete loss. 

A few days later, we were awarded $50,000 and Mrs. Laura Bush, former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, and former Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu— now Mayor of New Orleans—  were coming to meet me and see our six library shelves.

Earlier that year I had struck a deal with my headmaster, if I raised $40,000 he would buy me my own trailer for a library. When I received the grant, he delivered. However, due to the devastation on our campus we had to relocate to Gentilly.

In August 2007, two years after the storm, I opened our first, temporary library. We were fortunate to continue to receive grants from multiple organizations, and raised nearly half a million dollars. We paid for books, furniture, equipment, software, shelving and supplies. From 2007 to 2009, I opened three temporary libraries and designed a permanent 6,000 sq. ft. library, which opened in March 2010.

As we settled in to our new campus in Gentilly, I realized how proud I was of the library’s role in building a community in our new space. While there was no faculty lounge and few places to hang out during lunch, our library became the space on campus for both students and faculty. It became “the place to be,” a place to escape and learn.