Tuesday morning delivered a sight not seen at Destrehan High School for months: buses lined up, students filing into the school’s front doors and hustling to class, teachers and administrators greeting and directing them.
Destrehan High is back.
The school incurred significant damage in Hurricane Ida – the most extensive of any school site in St. Charles Parish, as DHS was the final school to reopen since Ida. The parish’s public school system is whole again.
But more importantly, a student body that’s weathered plenty over the past three school years, and a senior class that’s endured perhaps the most strange and difficult set of circumstances of any in the school’s history over that time period, will now be able to finish the school year at their home campus. Destrehan students, until Tuesday, were attending class at Hahnville High.
“It feels great … it’s going to be a little different seeing the construction going on, but we’re just thrilled to be back on our own campus, our own stomping grounds,” said Kailie Carrigee, the class president of Destrehan’s senior group. “141 days, it’s been a really long time.”
Carrigee spoke to the unique circumstances the students have faced.
“It’s been crazy. Our sophomore year got cut off by COVID, then junior year we went hybrid (scheduling) for the same reason. We thought we’d have some normalcy finally going into senior year, but then Hurricane Ida came in.
“I’m just ready to make the best of every moment in my last semester of high school. I’m looking forward to seeing all of my friends, all of my teachers, back on my own campus for my last few months (at Destrehan),” Carrigee said.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, there was no guarantee there would even be a 2021-22 school year. On top of the damage the district’s schools incurred, countless students, parents, school teachers and administrators alike were faced with damage to their homes, and in many cases displaced. Power was out parish-wide, and the time estimated to fix that was measured in weeks, not days.
Dr. Ken Oertling, St. Charles Parish Public Schools Superintendent, said there were indeed no guarantees here, and the successful return of students to each of the parish’s school sites came down to a lot of sacrifice and work.
“The amount of damage sustained at this building … if you look to other places around the state, you might not see a return at all this year,” Oertling said. “Our commitment to returning our students from day one … project leaders, our capital improvement team really coming together with our local emergency contractors, and really working seven days a week, 14-to-20-hour days, have brought us to the point where we could return our students.”
While the campus’s main building is still undergoing repairs, it is ready to function as a class site for students once again. The roof in Destrehan’s “A” building collapsed. The process was lengthened when asbestos was detected in some areas, so an extensive abatement process was part of the repair timeline. The “B” building also suffered, as Oertling noted, catastrophic damage.
“Sheetrock, flooring … you name it, it’s been replaced and repaired,” Oertling said. “When you look back to where we started, it’s pretty amazing to see what’s occurred here since the storm passed.”
He also acknowledged there was added motivation, given what the students have endured recently.
“Look, kids are resilient. But what these kids have been through the past two and a half years … it’s why this is so important,” Oertling said. “With the hurricane, then with the impact COVID has had on their daily lives. We knew we had to get them back and devoted all of our energy and effort into doing just that.”
School has made for a unique experience for Carrigee and her classmates. She admitted to being a bit anxious before starting classes at Hahnville many weeks ago – the Wildcats and Tigers are archrivals, after all.
“We were definitely scared at first … walking around, seeing purple and gold everywhere,” she said. “But all of the staff and teachers were so kind and so welcoming. It was really a good experience.”