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Drivers file one by one on northbound Interstate 55 as they navigate around fallen tree debris from Hurricane Ida, Monday, August 30, 2021, in Hammond, La.

As students in Tangipahoa Parish return to classrooms for the first time since Hurricane Ida hit the area over three weeks ago, the parish's school district is just beginning to grasp how much damage the storm left behind.

Early cost estimates for the district are in the millions of dollars.

Trees felled by the hurricane pulverized a classroom at Loranger High School. Shrieking winds ripped shingles off of rooftops at Hammond High, opening leaks in some stretches of ceiling. And Hammond Eastside Magnet Elementary School flooded when a drainage ditch north of campus overflowed, dumping water into the library room, according to a memo district Chief Financial Officer Bret Schnadelbach sent to school board members last week.

All 32 of the mostly-rural district's campuses sustained damages. District-wide repairs could cost $7.2 million — possibly more, Superintendent Melissa Stilley said Tuesday.

“Permanent repairs will take time, so please be patient,” she said.

On Tuesday, the school board approved a plan for students to make up class time lost to Ida recovery by tacking 25 minutes onto each school day and converting two non-instructional days in October to classroom days.

After swirling north from the Gulf of Mexico, Ida swept 8 feet of storm surge from Lake Maurepas into the southern portion of Tangipahoa Parish. Her winds blew down countless trees and power poles in the parish's pine-covered northern region. Some areas lost power for weeks. 

From shattered roofs to missing shingles, the damage was still visible on campuses where students returned to classes Tuesday.

The district has an insurance plan which includes a five percent storm deductible on each campus. That equates to a $1.2 million deductible for Ponchatoula High School, for example, where Ida inflicted significant damage to asphalt roof shingles.

Schnadelbach estimated repairs to Ponchatoula High alone could cost $3 million or more.

In that instance, the district would eat $1.2 million — five percent of the campus's property value — up front. Insurance would cover the balance, and the district will seek reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the $1.2 million it paid up front, Schnadelbach said.

But FEMA cash may take years to arrive in the parish’s coffers. And if another hurricane comes before then the district will be on its own; FEMA only covers one storm event per year under the plan.

“We’re covered once for this season, and our policy renews next September,” Schnadelbach said. “By next September either we’re going to have more exposure to storms, or we’re going to have to look at another way to ensure our schools. I don’t think I could eat the whole 1.2 million if a second event were to happen, without the FEMA help.”

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Work on identifying long term projects and accepting bids to fix some of the most serious structural damage to 16 campuses will start this week, Schnadelbach said.

After planning to bring students back to classrooms last week in a staggered approach, the district postponed its return to class as Hurricane Nicholas neared. That second storm's rain hindered cleanup efforts from Ida, the district said.

But as students came back to classes, some parents and teachers feared schools were still unfit for learning because of lingering impacts from the first storm.

Keytha Quinn, a teacher at Lucille Nesom Memorial School in Tickfaw, told the school board that she returned to her classroom Monday to find it in nearly “the same condition as two weeks prior.”

Installation was missing from the walls, she said. The teacher developed a cough on Tuesday and went to urgent care, she told the board — something she believes was a result of poor air quality in her classroom.

“I am suffering due to the lack of cleaning in our schools,” Quinn said. 

Restoration crews treated all campuses district-wide prior to their reopening, Schnadelbach told The Advocate. But mildew — and even mold — can be a natural result in Southeast Louisiana of buildings becoming wet and power being snuffed out in a storm, he acknowledged.

“The school that was mentioned today, we’ve walked through that campus, and it is fine,” Schnadelbach said. “Now we’re running our air conditioners around the clock to keep humidity down.”

The Louisiana Department of Health cleared the district to reopen all facilities, Stilley said.

Earlier Tuesday, parents took to social media to air grievances about mold appearing in campuses. Some picked up their kids from classes hours after they returned for the first time in three weeks over fears that the moisture would create a health hazard.

Ponchatoula-area school board member Randy Bush advised parents and employees not to jump to conclusions about the mold problem.

“I’m not a mold expert,” Bush said during Tuesday's school board meeting. “Your fifth grader is not an expert in mold, and you’re not either. … I’m not saying it is mold or it’s not mold. I don’t know that, so let’s not jump to conclusions.”


James Finn writes for The Advocate as a Report For America corps member. Email him at JFinn@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter @RJamesFinn.

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