Oct 31 2006

Students And Faculty Write Book About Hurricane Charley

After Hurricane Charley disrupted lives last summer, Poinciana High School students and teachers put the pieces back together by writing a book about their experiences.

A week after Hurricane Charley slammed into Kissimmee, Fla., Nada Taha was looking forward to going back to Poinciana High School. The senior wanted to focus on schoolwork and connect with her friends—anything to take her mind off the damage Charley’s 145-mph winds had done to her community.

But when Taha and her classmates returned to Poinciana’s campus, they found little relief. The hurricane had ripped the roof off both the gym and the cafeteria, leaving no place to hold rallies, the homecoming dance or a planned campus version of “American Idol.” Charley was the first of three hurricanes that stormed through Florida in the span of five weeks, but it caused the most damage to the high school.

Many of Poinciana’s 200 teachers and staffers were preoccupied with repairing their badly damaged homes, but they set aside their personal problems and returned to work to provide a sense of normalcy to the 2,500 students whose lives were turned upside down by the natural disaster. Some lucky families suffered little or no damage, while others lost their homes and fled to temporary shelter with family or friends.

During first period on Poinciana’s first day back, Principal Debra Pace asked the students to write essays about their hurricane experiences as a therapeutic exercise. Some teachers joined in and wrote their own essays, while many prekindergarten students on campus drew pictures.

Taha, who serves as the student body president, wrote a poem—an exercise she says helped in the healing process. “We hadn’t seen each other for a week,” she says. “We were all stuck at home with no electricity. It was nice to bond together, express our thoughts and let it all out.”

Keeping Memories Alive

Life goes on and memory fades, but the students’ outpourings after Hurricane Charley won’t vanish. The school is preparing to publish their stories in a book, which it will use as a fundraiser for community relief efforts.

Though important to student morale, the essays were only one of many efforts by school staffers—and outsiders—to raise the spirits of students who suffered through three hurricanes last summer. For several weeks, the school district provided free lunches, so parents who were busy trying to recover and repair their homes would not worry about packing lunches or finding lunch money.

Psychologists arrived on campus to counsel students, and local businesses donated money to help the school pay for a venue to host the homecoming dance. Paris High School in Paris, Ill., adopted Poinciana and raised $3,500 to help the school.

Some Poinciana students created a prayer circle, where students prayed for each other and for a speedy hurricane recovery. “Two girls initiated the ‘prayer chain’ and invited everyone to be a part of it,” Pace says. “We had 100 kids join the circle. It didn’t matter if they were friends or not. That was touching, wonderful and inspiring.”

Starting to Heal

Teachers and students spent the fall semester turning the post-Charley essays into a book. English teachers pored through thousands of essays and selected about 200 for publication.

Then students in the school’s computer design class designed the book. The district’s print shop plans to print 1,000 copies in February.

Credit for the essay and book idea goes to Dan Grell, Poinciana’s technology specialist and a former elementary school English teacher. Because Hurricane Charley had an impact on each person in the school, Grell came up with the idea of the book to provide a cathartic way for everyone to express their thoughts.

“The kids will be quite excited to see their work published,” says Grell, who hopes local bookstores will help sell the book.

English teacher Christina Remy assigned essays in all her classes on the first day students returned to school after the hurricane. It was a powerful experience, she recalls.

“When we came back, everyone was relieved,” Remy says. “We were happy we all survived, and we shared with each other what happened.”

Remy began by telling students about her experiences—hiding in her home with her husband and children as debris smashed into their house and broke nearly every window. Her story helped students open up and discuss their own experiences. Some of the students shared concerns about their parents’ economic well-being, while others said they worried about how their younger siblings were dealing with the trauma of the hurricane.

To prevent students from censoring themselves, Remy let them write their essays anonymously. “When you have a class discussion, some students may not feel free to say something because they may think someone will make fun of them, or they don’t want to reveal their economic status,” she explains. “They knew I wasn’t going to grade them. They felt free and could write whatever they wanted.”

Remy also did her own assignment, writing an essay that she says helped her deal with the experience. “By writing, I was gaining back a little bit more power,” she says.

Dealing With the Aftermath

At press time, students were still feeling the effects of the hurricane. Because the gym was destroyed, teams couldn’t shower after practice. With no locker rooms, the football team had to change clothes inside storage bins or in the boys’ restroom. The students ate their lunch in a big tent, while temperatures soared past 90 degrees.

“It’s gone from being sad and depressing to [feeling] really angry toward it,” Jennifer Tetteh, a 16-year- old sophomore, says.

Keith Simmons, dean and football coach, counsels more students than ever before. “I tell them, ‘I know how you are feeling,’” he says.

“I know their parents are worried, so I try to reassure them. You have to do your best when adversity is placed in your life. You just can’t fall apart.”

Slowly, life at Poinciana High School is returning to normal. The school is repairing the $7 million in damages to its cafeteria and gym, and officials hope to open a temporary indoor cafeteria sometime this year. They expect to reopen the gym by August.

“The hardest part,” says Pace, “is keeping up morale among the staff and students. There’s a mess at home, a mess at school and a mess everywhere in-between.

“It’s been a challenging year that’s been full of constant adjustments. We’re trying to maintain a sense of normalcy and focus on learning.”

Poinciana High’s book of essays, along with the other measures the school took after the hurricane, has gone a long way toward keeping the students’ and teachers’ spirits high during a difficult time.

Wylie Wong is a veteran technology reporter and the co-author of Giants: Where Have You Gone? about the San Francisco Giants players of the past.

Disaster Recovery

How Florida’s Poinciana High School helped students recover from last summer’s hurricane season.

• During the first period back, students and teachers wrote essays on their hurricane experiences. The school will publish a book of those essays and use it as a fundraiser for community relief efforts.
• The school district provided free lunch to students for several weeks.
• Therapists provided counseling on campus.
• Teachers cut back on homework assignments.
• The school accepted donations. Paris High School in Paris, Ill., adopted Poinciana, raising $3,500 for the school.

Poinciana Reflects on Charley

After three hurricanes hit Kissimmee, Fla., in five weeks, students and teachers at Poinciana High School wrote personal essays to express their feelings after Hurricane Charley, the worst of the three storms in 2004.

“My brothers and sister were terrified. They were in corners with their heads down crying. I just sat in the middle of the living room writing in my journal, wondering if this was the last time I’d be with my family.”
—Poinciana High School student

“As we stared helplessly out the window, we watched in horror as a neighbor’s roof ripped off. … The next few days were spent cleaning up our yard and our neighbor’s yard. They say when something bad happens, something good will come out of it, and the good thing … was I got to see what awesome neighbors we have. No one was afraid to lend a helping hand.”
—Poinciana High School student

“As the wind whips the glass in the windows, we suddenly hear a loud crash against the walls. It sounds as if a car has hit the house. There is another crash and a showering of broken glass. My husband holds his head as he says, ‘That must be the patio furniture going through the sliding doors.’… The baby is clinging to me, and I am willing the storm to leave. I pray that we can hold on.”
—Christina Remy, Poinciana High School English teacher