At 7:50 a.m. this Tuesday, the morning bell will ring at Mt. Carmel Academy and nearly 1,100 students will file into classrooms at the 110-year-old Catholic girls high school. The familiar ritual of returning to school after the Christmas holidays will have a lot more meaning this year, however, as Mt. Carmel will be reopening for the first time since Hurricane Katrina swamped the historic Lakeview campus on Aug. 29.
All nine of Mt. Carmel's buildings took on water from the 17th Street Canal, whose floodwall burst open less than a mile away and sent torrents through Lakeview, Mid-City and beyond.
Because of Mt. Carmel's proximity to the breach, floodwaters rose quickly and stayed long. More than four months after Katrina, most of the school's tan brick buildings still have several water lines -- the highest between nine and 10 feet above ground, with another, darker one at about 6 feet, and still another one at 4 to 5 feet. Virtually everything inside the buildings was ruined, and several of the buildings were less than a decade old.
Now, 20 weeks after Katrina, all but two of the school's buildings will reopen. And, while some offices won't yet be fully functional, all classrooms have been restored or rebuilt. That Mt. Carmel is reopening at all is a minor miracle, says veteran principal Sister Camille Anne Campbell, now in her 26th year as president of the school. "We've had a lot of blessings in all of this," she says.
Mt. Carmel's relatively quick rebound after the flood stands as a testament to the faith and resilience of the school's leadership, alumnae and parents -- as well as the dedication of contractors and subs who know better than to argue with a tough-minded Carmelite like Campbell. The school's comeback is also an inspiration to others in Lakeview, one of the city's hardest-hit -- and most low-lying -- neighborhoods. Above all, it shows just how much people can accomplish when they roll up their sleeves and get to work on a problem, undaunted by the size and scope of the task ahead.
For a while, however, it seemed the job would never get started.
Campbell traveled to Atlanta for a meeting the week before Katrina, and she left instructions not to use the school as a shelter because there would be no one there in charge. As the storm approached, only three Carmelite sisters remained in the Motherhouse.
When water started rising, Campbell's instructions went by the wayside. Several neighbors got inside the school and hunkered down. As floodwaters continued to rise, the neighbors moved to the upper floors. They ultimately flagged down a boat and helped get the nuns out of the Motherhouse.
"All this time, I was watching reports on TV about the flood. I kept trying to get out of Atlanta, but I couldn't," Campbell says. "Finally, I got to Jackson, Mississippi, and rented a car so I could drive to Baton Rouge. Then Hurricane Rita hit. A few days later, I managed to drive to New Orleans and get past the National Guardsmen -- you know, that old 'the good sister needs to see her convent' routine still works -- so I could see our school."
What she saw when she arrived was so upsetting that she refused to let parents or students get close. In fact, there was a moment -- just one -- when Campbell wondered whether the school should even attempt to reopen.
"We knew it was going to be bad because we had seen pictures," she recalls. "But seeing it in person was just heartbreaking. The water was still not out. There were people in boats going up and down Milne Avenue. The whole place was a mess."
Then, two days after her return, Campbell was hospitalized. During the protracted and stressful evacuation, her inability to get regular doses of her heart medication had taken a toll. When she came out of the hospital, she steeled herself for the long and difficult road ahead.
"People asked me, 'What are we going to do?'" she says, admitting that she wasn't sure herself at the time. "So I just told them, 'We have to fix it. If we don't have the faith to rebuild our school, if the sisters don't have faith in our community, it puts a big 'X' across Lakeview.' And we just couldn't do that."
And so the recovery began.
ONE OF THE MOST FAMILIAR SYMBOLS IN THE SCRIPTURES is that of a well, a source not only of water but also of healing and life itself. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the well holds a similar meaning for Mt. Carmel.
In the weeks after the storm, as work crews struggled to jump-start the long cleanup process at the flood-soaked school, one of their biggest impediments was the lack of a steady supply of fresh water. The city's water system was completely shut down. Cleanup crews had to truck in water to hose down the campus' hallways and classrooms. To make matters worse, the high cost of gasoline and the logistical limitations of trucking in limited supplies of water made the process as expensive as it was painstakingly slow.
"Cleaning up after a flood required a lot of water, " says Mt. Carmel vice president Beth Ann Simno. "One day our contractors came up with the idea of digging a well. With our own well, we could have all the water we needed. So we sank a well, chlorinated it, and not only had water for the cleanup but also for workers to live on site and bathe. That really helped speed things up for our recovery."
The 780-foot well may even remain as a source of fresh water for the school's new central plant and chiller system, Simno says.
In years to come, it could also serve as a reminder of the determination that Simno and Campbell brought to the recovery process -- and of the "blessings" that Campbell counts daily after Katrina.
On a recent Saturday, just 10 days before the scheduled reopening, Campbell and Simno are walking the campus as work crews scurry from site to site installing lights, laying carpet, running wires and doing any number of construction-related tasks. They are joined by a dozen or so parent volunteers and even a few students who are busy cleaning old athletic trophies covered in dirt and muck.
"We're getting new air-conditioning units in some buildings, and cleaner ducts in others," Campbell says, pointing overhead inside one of the school's newer classroom buildings. "We've had lots and lots of volunteers, and the response from alums has been overwhelming -- some from as far back as the 1930s have written us. We have received donations of money and goods from all over, including more than a quarter-million dollars' worth of goods from Aramco, which employs one of our graduates.
"Of course, renovations are happening in some places where we might not have renovated yet, which is another blessing," she continues. "We have new lockers, new door frames, modern designs in places where buildings were designed before air conditioning, and new lighting in most places. We've also been blessed with a wonderful construction crew. They're as dedicated as the parents."
She weaves her way down one of the school's many construction-littered hallways, stepping around workers on ladders and volunteers slinging mops and brooms. Across campus, there are plans for a new central plant with a 12-foot elevation, and two of the school's three gymnasiums will get new floors.
Among all those blessings, one stands out for students, parents, even construction workers: the school's religious statues all survived intact. "Every statue on our campus survived the flood -- and was standing erect when we returned," Campbell says. "The statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which stands in front of the campus facing Robert E. Lee Boulevard, floated up with the rising water and then back down, erect, right next to its pedestal," she says solemnly. "And it was still facing Robert E. Lee Boulevard."
She pauses, then adds for emphasis, "One foot away from her pedestal."
Simno describes another statue of the Blessed Mother, "one that was light enough for our younger students to carry," which she says remained on its pedestal, covered in muck and weeds, but unmoved from its perch despite being lightweight. "It was totally submerged in 10 feet of water, yet it never moved," Simno says. She adds that one of the school's contractors, a trash hauler from Houston, decided to take the Mt. Carmel job after seeing all the school's statues right where they belonged shortly after the flood. "He called his wife and said, 'I have to take this job. There's something special about this place.'"
That, of course, was not news to Mount Carmel parents and students who awaited word of the school's fate in the weeks after the storm. At the first local post-Katrina meeting of the school community, Simno delivered a terse statement that brought the crowd to its feet: "We will be back."
AMONG THOSE IN THE AUDIENCE at that meeting was Danny Nodurft, president of the fathers' support group Men of Mt. Carmel, and whose daughter Danielle is a junior at the school. Like a lot of Mt. Carmel parents, Danny and Judy Nodurft lost nearly everything in the flood. When Danny heard Simno's pronouncement, he immediately offered the fathers' help.
"I told them whatever they needed from the dads, we were ready to do -- move furniture, clean up, transport people," Nodurft says. "All they needed to do was call me and I would get in touch with the membership."
The call was not long in coming.
"Some time in October I got the first call to help move furniture out of the Sisters' residence, a two-story building, into the auxiliary gym so they could start working on the Sisters' residence," Nodurft recalls. "We had more than a dozen volunteers that first day. We just called and they showed up."
Since that time, Nodurft received several more calls from Campbell and Simno, and each time the dads responded with volunteers.
"They were willing to do anything to help us get back open," says Simno. "They helped with fundraising, located donors of appliances and furniture, re-established contacts with Mt. Carmel families, and did a wide range of other tasks. Once the campus dried out, parents and students helped clean up old trophies, paintings and religious icons."
"We made them wait until things were cleaned up somewhat on campus before we let them back in," adds Campbell. "We didn't want to let them see how bad it was in the beginning, because we were afraid they would become discouraged. We didn't want that to happen."
As the job site gradually became cleaner, students began to show up with parent volunteers. Last week, in the final days before classes resumed, parents and students gave the campus and the buildings one last wipe-down.
While Campbell and Simno oversaw efforts of contractors and volunteers, Mt. Carmel's newly appointed director of development, P. J. Ciaccio Jr., who has worked at the school for 39 years, got to work contacting alumnae and friends of the school. "In addition to many monetary donations from our families and friends, we received financial and in-kind donations from across the country," Ciaccio says. "Friends and alumnae really stepped up to the plate to help us rebuild. They held fundraisers in Arizona, Los Angeles, Pennsylvania, New York, Boston, Houston, Indiana, Colorado ... just everywhere."
Ciaccio also contacted scores of foundations, manufacturers, corporations, Carmelite institutions and other potential benefactors in his new role. "It is heart-warming," he says, "to see how many parents, alumnae, friends and benefactors have called to offer their help and support to make sure we continue the Carmel tradition in the Lakeview area."
Simno adds that 40 college students from St. Mary's College near Berkeley, Calif., traveled to New Orleans by bus to help schools recover, slept on the bus where they worked, and while at Mt. Carmel helped with carpentry, cabinet-making, furniture moving and other odd jobs that got the school closer to reopening.
When Mt. Carmel reopens this week, the return of so many of its 1,243 pre-Katrina students will reflect another piece of good fortune: while the school was inundated, more than 80 percent of its students live in areas that did not flood. But the school's Lakeview neighborhood may or may not be allowed to rebuild, according to the Bring New Orleans Back Commission's revitalization plan. Lakeview's future thus depends on how many of its residents choose to return in the coming months.
"I hope our comeback inspires others in Lakeview to return," Campbell says. "This area is home for all of us."
WHILE SHOWING A VISITOR AROUND CAMPUS recently, Campbell pauses in front of the school's coat of arms, which hangs outside the assembly center. Mt. Carmel's Latin motto, translated, reads, "With zeal am I zealous for the Lord God of Hosts." As she reaches for a door to enter the building, she turns and says, "This has taken a lot of zeal."
Indeed, Mt. Carmel has come a long way since Mother Clare Coady moved the campus from the French Quarter to Lakeview in 1926 and opened the school with just 16 girls. In the last decade alone, the school has seen a building and fundraising boom, which many attribute to the zeal of Campbell and Simno.
"Those two are the heart and spirit of that school," says Nodurft. "Plus, you can't say 'no' to those two women." After a pause, he says with a laugh, "You can try arguing with them, but whatever they say is going to happen -- that's what's going to happen."