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Seton Strong: Finding the normal after Hurricane Irma

By January 25, 2018No Comments

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Maria Niebuhr, first year principal of St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic School in Naples, Florida, sits behind her desk in an office filled with boxes stacked on boxes, placed on a floor stripped away to bare concrete.

As she holds two pictures showing the $1 million in damages the school sustained from Hurricane Irma, the sound of a screw gun pierces the air as its drilled into a nearby wall.

This is the new normal for St. Elizabeth Seton.

The pre-K3 through eighth-grade school lost power for two weeks during the storm and was forced to remain closed for three and a half weeks, longer than every other school under the Diocese of Venice.

Of the school’s 202 students, more than 70 students are on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income families. The program is managed by Step Up For Students.

Students young enough to enjoy a daily nap must do so on blankets placed on bare concrete. Black plastic has been placed over areas where the drywall was ruined. In several classrooms, entire walls are covered with it.

Maria Crowley has been teaching at Seton for 28 years. Her kindergarten classroom is lined with the black plastic. Underneath her desk, a large chunk of concrete is missing.

When Irma was bearing down, Crowley was ready. She stored things out of reach of the flooding. When the rain stopped and the wind passed, she showed up to sweep water out of her room.

“I just fear what happens if we have another hurricane,” Crowley says. “But we’ll do what we have to do.”

In Seton’s main building that houses pre-K3 through fifth grade, as well as the media center, everything had to be moved out, boxed up, put into the gymnasium and manually scrubbed down before being brought back inside.

The damage is extensive. Every classroom needs a combination of new ceilings, drywall and lighting fixtures. Outdoor bulletin board glass casings went flying during the storm, never to return. In the school’s courtyard, old bricks that once surrounded a statue of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton were rearranged by Mother Nature, while the statue was moved by work crews. Niebuhr says she still is still dealing with leaks nearly every day.

While insurance will cover the costly damages, the school is trying to recoup its $100,000 deductible to make other repairs that have long plagued it. Years of quick fixes left the 36-year-old school more vulnerable when Irma struck as a Category 2 hurricane on Sept. 10.

The rebuilding plan is to place all the students in portable classrooms so repairs and enhancements can be done simultaneously. It could take several months to complete all the work.

Despite all this, Niebuhr remains impressed by the resilience of her students.

“The children become immune to it, but it’s sad,” she says. “We’ve got to move forward with all of this.”

Annabel Krystaszek is a bright-eyed, 8-year-old in Erin Lanigan’s third-grade class. Her family had no power for a week and lost a big tree in her yard; Annabel loved the tree. To deal with the stifling heat, her family left their doors and windows open.

“It felt weird being out of school,” Annabel says. “I was happy to get math and spelling homework.”

Adaora , 12, said Irma was the first hurricane she has experienced. The seventh-grader said her family lost power for about three weeks.

“I was scared when the storm came,” she says. “I didn’t like being out of school much. It was a little bit of a break, but I missed it.”

Irma might have battered Seton, but the school’s spirit has not been dampened. Upon returning to school, every child received a yellow #SetonStrong hard hat. A relaxed dress code on Fridays allows students to wear jeans and their #SetonStrong T-shirts.

In the spirit of solidarity, several Catholic schools across the country, including some as far away as Illinois and Connecticut, have “adopted” Seton and have raised money for its cause. An anonymous California benefactor sent a $5,000 check, while St. Joseph Catholic School in Bradenton held a fundraiser for St. Seton while repairing damages of its own.

One of the bulletin boards near Seton’s courtyard that was spared damage is lined with letters of support and drawings sent from a school in Hawaii.

In Irma’s aftermath, Seton students created an art project that involved coloring and branding rocks with the #SetonStrong motto and placing them throughout the community. The project caught the attention of the Naples Daily News, which ran a feature story about the positive vibes the project spread through the city.

St. Elizabeth Seton is battered, but Niebuhr says its spirit cannot be broken.

“Everyone here cares about each other,” she says. “The heart of the school is in each and every one of these teachers and students. We are Seton Strong regardless of what happens here. We have pride in who we are.”

David Hudson Tuthill can be reached at