Fix for flooded schools finally set in motion

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 11, 2013

By David Vitrano

RESERVE – It has been more than a year since Hurricane Isaac meandered across St. John the Baptist Parish, flooding East St. John High School and Lake Pontchartrain Elementary School, but a visitor might be forgiven for thinking the storm happened much more recently than that as the two schools have lain practically untouched in all that time.
Finally, Superintendent Kevin George seems to have gotten the recovery process on track with the selection of firms to handle both the management and architectural aspects of the two projects. At its last meeting the St. John Parish School Board approved George’s recommendation of Yeates and Yeates of New Orleans to handle the architectural workload and All South Consulting Engineers of Metairie for disaster management.
George said one of All South’s main duties will be to work with FEMA to ensure procedures are followed and the district is reimbursed for as much as possible.
The total cost of the recovery work is expected to be in the $40-50 million range, but the exact figure is not yet known because the scope of what needs to be done at Lake Pontchartrain Elementary has not been determined.
George said the recovery has been at the top of his to-do list since being hired.
“There’s no excuse,” he said. “This is something that should not take a year and a half. Since July 1 this has been priority number one for me, and it will continue to be our number one priority. There are not going to be any excuses coming from me.”
George said he hand-picked the members of the selection committee, most of whom do not reside or work in St. John the Baptist Parish. Retired engineer Harold Flynn was the only local on the five-person committee. George said having a committee made up of people without a vested interest in the school system or local business and politics was meant to remove any bias from the selection process.
“I just wanted to have a clear process,” said George. “I think we’ve done that.”
Out of an initial six disaster management firms and 13 architectural firms to respond to the Request For Proposals, the committee narrowed the choices to the top three in each category. After hearing oral presentations from the finalists, the top firms were chosen based on a number of factors, including corporate background and experience, approach and methodology, staff qualifications and resumes and classification as a disadvantaged/minority/women/veteran enterprise. The thorough process received praise from the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
“The St. John the Baptist Parish school district has done this in a highly professional way,” said Ben Plaia, legal counsel for GOHSEP’s Disaster Recovery Division. “I wish all of my applicants would be as highly attentive to the details.”
A rough date of January 2015 has been set for the reopening of East St. John High School. More assessment must be done at Lake Pontchartrain Elementary before any sort of timeframe can be laid out, but LPE students and teachers will at least be reunited at the school’s temporary campus after the winter break. Regardless of the timeframe, George said the time for feet dragging is officially over.
“It’s time to get these buildings moving,” he said. “Every day, every hour that we wait, that’s another day or hour these kids are not where they need to be.”