Person of the Week: Doris Voitier

New Orleans Superintendent Doris Voitier kept schools open, despite storm.

ByABC News

Aug. 25, 2006 — -- Thousands of students have classrooms to enter this fall in St. Bernard Parish, La., thanks to the district's superintendent, Doris Voitier.

After Hurricane Katrina hit last year and the levees broke, St. Bernard Parish lay under under 8 feet of water. Voitier and 250 others rode out the storm in the region's high school, which was used as a shelter.

"The school system, historically, has been the caretaker for the people in the community at any time of emergency," Voitier said.

They remained in the school with no bathrooms and little food or water for four days, until they could get their own boats and evacuate.

Two weeks after Katrina destroyed her home, her parish and her schools, Voitier decided it was time to put the schools back together.

"As I went to the buildings that I could get to, [there] was complete and total destruction," she said. "There was not a home, a church, a school or a business that was habitable. Every one of our 15 school sites was destroyed.

"We have two oil refineries and a sugar refinery in this parish, and they were very eager to get their employees back … and they couldn't do that unless they had a school," Voitier said.

To get the schools repaired, Voitier's first call was to FEMA, but the agency was not able to help as quickly as she needed it to. "It was too much bureaucracy, too much red tape," she said. "And I looked at them and said, 'Thank you very much, but we'll do it ourselves and we'll send you the bill.'"

She used school district funds to purchase 107 trailers, which were used as classrooms and housing for her teachers, and then found local residents and members of the building trades to pitch in with the effort.

"We found out that, just as in the storm … in the aftermath … we had to take care of ourselves," she said. "So we just sprung into action."

She had a head start on paperwork, having downloaded all the students' files along with payroll files for the teachers before the storm hit.

After three-and-a-half weeks, they put a school together in the parking lot of Chalmette High School.

"We opened 11 weeks after the storm on Nov. 14, and on our very first day, we had 334 students return," Voitier said.

The first batch of students was just a start. Last week, when the new school year began, 3,300 children attended classes.

Voitier said she has been reimbursed by the government for half of the trailers she purchased, which became the centerpiece of her community.

"What is your most precious possession? Your children," she said. "If you can drop them off in the morning and know that they are going to have a good experience, then that makes their day easier and they can go about … rebuilding their homes and our community."

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