Sunday October 31, 2010, the morning after the passage of hurricane Tomas, which wreaked destruction all over the island, many Saint Lucians were in disbelief. The storm had claimed several lives, hindered business on the island, if only for a few days, with stores remaining closed, petrol supply disrupted in some areas and the water system badly affected, causing water shortages and rationing. Electricity supply was also interrupted and the vital tourism industry was also dealt a blow with the shut down of some hotels and the Hewannorra International Airport was inoperable for some time.
The island is far from being back to “normal” with signs of Tomas’ fury and wounds still visible. And whilst the education system which was also disrupted by the storm is probably more than ninety percent fully restored, there are still rough edges. The schools most affected were those in Soufriere, Bexon, Odsan, Anse La Raye/Canaries and Union where Dame Pearlette Primary is housed. And though most of the schools in those areas were reopened by November 2010, the Bexon Primary School and the Canaries Infant School took a while longer.
In the case of Canaries, it was not until this past February, that their 95 students were able to sit comfortably in their classrooms to begin making up for some lost time.
The Canaries Infant School was the hardest hit institution in the village of Canaries with the nearby river using the compound as a dumping ground for debris, logs, and rocks, silt and mud at least four feet high. One young boy, a student of the school, quite apart from not having his school back for three months, also had his home washed away during the storm. Three young girls also lost all of their school supplies.
However on February 14, 2011 Valentines day, where there was anxiety and sadness on the face of teachers and students, this was replaced by looks of joy. It was the day that the principal, teachers and students returned to their original classrooms for the first time since Friday October 29, 2010, the day before Tomas hit Saint Lucia.
The STAR visited the school last week, one month after the reopening, and we were pleasantly surprised by the transformation, recalling our post Tomas photos from the nearby hill top back in November. Not only had the school been fully restored, sanitized and repaired but the furniture was also neatly in place. The nearby playing-field was also being rehabilitated and will soon have a brand new face-lift.
We spoke to school Principal Simona Jn Baptiste who has in her care the students from Grade K to Grade 2. She recalled that dreadful morning after the storm when she had to face the sight of the school which had been placed in her care since 2007—strewn with debris, mud, silt and about three feet of water. “We were in total shock and did not know where to start with the clean-up because it just seemed impossible,” Jn Baptiste relates. “But after three weeks, community members came and tried to de-silt the area using strictly man power, no heavy equipment. But there was a certain point where we just could not do anything on our own again and of course we had the problem with clean water,” she said.
For the next six weeks the school would remain untouched as the students were moved to the unaffected Primary school where they had to share the top floor quarters. There were a few challenges, the Canaries Infant School principal admits, having to share a building.
“Being on the top floor where the flooring was wood, restricted us in the way we taught our children some of the concepts which can be very interactive and sometimes calls for a lot of movement,” Jn Baptiste revealed. But we were grateful because whilst other schools were reopened under a shift system we were over at the Primary school building full time. We also had to combine grades, so whilst it was not the best conditions, at least the children were still able to learn some of the concepts,” she contends.
The Canaries Infant School shared quarters with the Primary School from November 2010, whilst the Ministry of Education assisted the school in securing sponsorship and corporate assistance as part of assistance for the schools affected by the hurricane. “We were more than happy when we found out that Bank of Saint Lucia had agreed to help our school,” Jn Baptiste informed the STAR. According to the school principal the company moved in as soon as possible with staff volunteers and other persons and within three weeks had restored the building. As part of their assistance the financial institution also provided the school with educational material and stationery as well as bank accounts for the students. The Government of Saint Lucia she says, however, assisted with de-silting the back of school. Another generous friend and former resident of Canaries who now leaves in London helped liven up the building with very attractive child-friendly paintings and quotes on the school walls.
“Is everything now back to normal now?” I asked the school principal. “Oh yes and we are so grateful to all the friends, the community and other persons from whom there was such an outpouring. We now have the resources to bring out concepts and skills to students and The Ministry of Education did assist in giving us back a lot of our resources. But most of all we are very grateful to Bank of Saint Lucia for their wonderful restoration project for the school,” she responded.
The school compound is also now home to a computer lab and resource centre thanks to the Taiwanese who have also provided the institution with a 42 inch flat screen television.
“Tomas a blessing in disguise, maybe?” I threw at Ms Jn Baptiste. “Hmm, well you could say that in a way, because the school is receiving much deserved attention, the kind of attention we have been calling out for in the past. But though we are happy now we certainly would not want another Tomas,” she said shaking her head.
The way forward for the school, which the principal says has been performing at national exams way above the mean, is to continue to progress. “We do not want Tomas to affect that, so my teachers and I are determined and we are working towards keeping this trend, that we want our children to be performing above national minimum standards. And of course now we also feel accountable to Bank of Saint Lucia as we believe that a fitting way to show our thanks is to show that our children can perform and not just perform but at the highest level,” she said enthusiastically.
She continued: “Our dream is for this school to be a model school, the best school on the island and we are working towards that. We also have some Canadian friends who have been with us for eight years coming down each summer with gifts for the school. They are working very closely with our teachers through resource training in arts, science and literacy all in all helping us meet our dreams. We do not always depend on the Ministry but we use our resource, the teachers do what they can and we have friends who try to help us.”
Finally the school principal says that the parents, teachers and students are eternally grateful to the Community, corporate Saint Lucia, the Teachers Credit Union,
the Saint Lucia Teachers Union, The Montessori School in Castries, Ms Poyotte of the Social Department other corporate citizens and ECFH Bank of Saint Lucia.