NEW YORK — Six weeks after Hurricane Sandy slammed the American northeastern coastline, and two weeks before Christmas, many people remain homeless or displaced in New York City’s Rockaway Queens district.
A significant community victory, however, was achieved Monday when Saint Camillus Catholic school reopened to students after severe flooding and rot nearly destroyed it.
Some 200 students were back saying their regular morning prayers at Saint Camillus, their first full day at school since Oct. 29, when the ocean, a short city block away, flooded their building while also damaging or destroying nearby homes.
While she's thankful to another school for housing them and their teachers while repairs were being made, Sister Agnes, who runs the school, is grateful to see the students back at Saint Camillus.
“We know it’s been a long struggle for you," she tells the students. "But here we are back home and that’s the important part, that we’re all together. We’re back home and we are ready to start anew.”
In a ceremony last week, Sister Agnes distributed cut-out paper stars to students to tape onto school walls anywhere they wished.
“Between now and Christmas, this building should be filled with stars, a symbol of light. We all lost light. We know what it’s like to be without light," Sister Agnes says. "But now we have light in this building and we need the light that you’re going to put up with the stars, a symbol of the light of Jesus Christ.”
Some parts of the school remain damaged beyond repair. Janine Cerrone, a veteran teacher whose husband and son nearly drowned when their basement flooded, now teaches kindergarten in the school library.
“See that building that has beige stone?" she says, pointing out of the window. "That’s our building; that’s our room. It’s like a cottage and it’s completely gutted. We are going to be displaced for a very long time but young children are adaptable, and they seem to be fine. So we’ll do the best we can.”
Luna is one of her kindergartners who lost her home as a result of the storm. Luna's mother, Eileen, enourages her daughter to stay positive.
“I remind her ‘You have the blessing of having life. You are safe. Everything is okay. Everybody that you love is okay," she says. "She lost her toys. She lost her bed. But she still has her school and her friends and her close family."
Three seventh graders who are glad to be back at Saint Camillus remain without heat and hot water at home. Two say Superstorm Sandy has tested their faith and that their Christmas spirit has soured.
“Yes, it’s going to be harder," says one girl. "This year really is not Christmas for us.
Her friend looks for meaning in it all.
"I think this is a lesson for us, maybe open our ears more, to stop the violence and everything," he says. "Maybe we could just have peace. So I think this hurricane was supposed to teach us a lesson. ”
For school secretary Kerry Montero, Sandy’s message is clearest in the many acts of kindness it continues to inspire.
“A little boy comes in on Friday with a Christmas gift for myself and the principal and his teacher, and among these other things that are going on this is what this little boy, when he stops in the store sees wants to do," she says. "It’s touching, the outpouring of help we’ve received from everyone. We’ve had people from Connecticut, California, Brooklyn, all over the place, coming and helping us. And it's bittersweet because I know all the children are not back with us. It’s emotional.”
Daunting challenges remain at Saint Camillus as they do throughout Rockaway Queens and other seaside New York neighborhoods.
Yet as one visitor to the school said, “Mother Nature is powerful, but so is the human spirit.”