Fifteen year old Madeline Baay shifted the boat paddle she carried to her other hand and pushed a strand of shiny brown hair from her face before she spoke: “This city is our future. We are going to be the ones living and working here, and we want it to be safe.” Madeline had to speak loudly because she was in the midst of a milling throng which included two hundred and twenty of her classmates. The girls, all in school uniform with many wearing life preservers and carrying signs, joined hundreds of other New Orleans residents in the French Quarter across from Jackson Square to plead for flood protection and wetland preservation from a president who barely touched down in a city which continues to endure the aftermath of Americas greatest natural disaster.
Patti Brechtel, the Dean of Students of Sacred Heart, one of the oldest all-girl Catholic schools in New Orleans, explained, “Many of our faculty and students lost homes in the flooding. Our students need to learn to advocate for themselves and others, and here today we have a living classroom.” Ms. Brechtel stated that approximately ninety percent of Sacred Hearts students have returned from their far-flung evacuations and only a handful did not attend the demonstration, most because of “pressing academic deadlines.” Following the rally her students were going to return to school and attend a shortened version of all their normal classes.
Shawn Holahan, a local attorney and mother of two Sacred Heart students attending the rally, was the catalyst for the schools involvement. “We have started a group called Stop the Flooding and were planning a protest to coincide with the presidents brief visit. Until the levees are rebuilt and flood protection is strengthened New Orleans recovery is stymied. Right now they are not even close to getting it right and hurricane season is less than five months away.” Ms. Holahan e-mailed her intentions to a couple of teachers on Sunday, and Tuesday Ms. Brechtel called her and told her that most of the student body would be there. “I was surprised,” Ms. Holahan said, “Sacred Heart doesnt usually allow field trips, and every parent would have had to give permission. But I think it is great for the kids to be here.”
Phil Frady, a lifelong resident of New Orleans, attended the rally and displayed a cardboard sign saying No City Left Behind. Phil has renovated his house and moved back in, the first person to return in his neighborhood, which still lacks streetlights. Like many attending the rally he insisted that the recovery of New Orleans transcends race, political parties and economic status. “This is a community issue. We have all been affected by the flooding.” Phil feels abandoned by the Federal government but sees the flood as an enormous opportunity for New Orleans to “come together.” Phil is a social worker and is used to navigating red tape, but worries about citizens who dont have his expertise or resources. “FEMA actually told a neighbor the best way to get assistance was to flag down a FEMA vehicle if he sees one in the neighborhood.” He believes that New Orleans is a precious community because it hasnt been made over in a corporate image like much of the rest of America. Phil thinks the most important issue is the protection of New Orleans and echoed the refrain of the schoolgirls, “The Federal government has to make sure the levees are built right this time.”
Ms. Brechtel reported that her students were thrilled with the events of the rally and the positive attention it focused on the citys ongoing struggles. “One of the goals of our school is to instill social awareness, but it is not enough just to know, you have to act and yesterday our students got a chance to do just that.”