The photographs that lined Salmen High School’s cafeteria Friday morning testified to the destructive force of a powerful storm but also to the strength of those who persevered.
Images of destruction appeared side by side with those of renewal: pictures of new schools and smiling students, labeled with the words “community,” “pride,” “resilience” and “optimism.”
In a morning remembrance ceremony, St. Tammany Parish stressed the positive, gathering elected officials, administrators and principals for the north shore’s first official commemoration of Hurricane Katrina.
Tenth anniversary events will continue Saturday with a ceremony honoring first responders and volunteers at Slidell Municipal Auditorium at 6:30 p.m., followed by exhibits on the streets of Olde Towne from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Katrina’s fury was most evident at Salmen High in Slidell — the only St. Tammany school that had to be demolished and rebuilt. The gleaming new campus, which cost about $46 million, didn’t open until 2010, and initially, Salmen students took classes at Northshore High School, becoming what school officials affectionately nicknamed the Spanthers — a tribute to the schools’ Spartan and Panther mascots.
As a part of the commemoration Friday, officials played video of Salmen’s former principal, Byron Williams, delivering his emotional commencement speech to the first graduating class after Katrina.
Having just come through a storm that took many of the pupils’ homes, he told them, “I didn’t teach you this year. You have taught me.”
Parish President Pat Brister on Friday stressed the importance of the school system to the parish’s recovery, saying the reopening of schools gave people a reason to return home and helped to restore a sense of normalcy.
In a video interview, Gayle Sloan, who was the school system’s superintendent at the time of the storm, talked about the decision to reopen schools on Oct. 1 — an ambitious goal that was further complicated by the arrival of Hurricane Rita and the need to transform schools into shelters again as a precautionary measure.
Despite the look back, Friday’s tone was determinedly upbeat.
Student groups, including a mixed chorus of Northshore and Salmen students, sang, and Makai Hammond, a second-grader at Brock Elementary whose birthday is Aug. 29, led the Pledge of Allegiance.
Superintendent Trey Folse recalled volunteers working to clear debris from school grounds even as their own homes remained in disarray.
“We have all come so far,” he said. “I’m a stronger person. I’ve learned life lessons. I’m a better person for it.”
Brister delivered a similar message, urging those present to take a moment during the anniversary to be proud of themselves.
“If we had to do it again, we would do it and do it well,” she said.
This story was altered on Aug. 29, 2015 to clarify the time frame during which Salmen students took classes at Northshore High School.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.