Like many teenagers last fall, students at Ball High School in Galveston, Texas, had their sights set on homecoming activities, football games and an upcoming musical. But by the early morning hours of Sept. 5, it was clear that everything was about to change.
That was when Ike, the third most destructive hurricane ever to hit the United States, pummeled the students’ homes and surrounding businesses, divided many of their families, and dealt substantial damage to their school. Lisa Schweitzer, a leadership teacher and student council sponsor at Ball, lost many of her material possessions in the storm that flooded the bottom floor of her home. Schweitzer allowed little time for self-pity, however, promptly shifting her focus to the students.
“The day Ike made landfall, it was bad,” she says. “One of the girls, along with her whole family, swam from her home near the seawall to the high school. Along the way she felt a sharp pain in her leg, like something had bitten her. By the time they got to the school, they realized she was suffering from a poisonous snakebite. Another boy was told to write his social security number on his arm, in case they needed to identify his body later.”
But as bad as it was that day, the toughest part was still to come.
Meanwhile, here in Lakewood
Not long after Ike hit, students participating in a new leadership and mentoring program at Lakehill Preparatory School, some 300 miles away, were mulling over ideas for a service project. Under the guidance of Lakehill communications director Gigi Ekstrom, they put in a call to the administration at Galveston’s only public high school to find out if they needed help.
“We honestly didn’t know if they were still in real need or not,” Ekstrom says. “I talked to a woman there, and as soon as I told her what we wanted to do, she started to cry.”
Yes, Galveston still needed help — and badly. The woman with whom Ekstrom spoke was Schweitzer, who says she was touched to know people here in Dallas were thinking of them.
Newly informed as to the extent of Ike’s blow, Ekstrom and the group of freshmen and seniors structured a Hurricane Ike relief project, and rallied the entire kindergarten through 12th-grade school to help collect items most needed at Ball High — socks, shoes, underwear, coats, toiletries and school supplies — and scheduled a trip to deliver the goods.
At 6 a.m. on a Monday a few weeks ago, Ekstrom, a delegation of 12th-graders and teacher Michael Cummings, the only staffer licensed to drive a bus, loaded up the supplies and took off toward the Texas coast.
Lakehill student Preston Miller says when he and the others arrived at the Ball campus, things didn’t look that bad.
“But nothing was as it seemed,” he says.
“The kids seemed to be dealing with things really well, laughing and joking around, but then we found out that their homes had been destroyed, and they were living in hotels.”
With Cummings at the wheel, the Galvestonians led the Lakehill visitors on a tour of the island.
“There was a lot of destruction, worse than I had expected,” says Lakehill student Adam Ulissey. At a glance, things didn’t look horrible, but much like the people of the island, turmoil was beneath the surface. “The shell was still there, but then you realized everything was gutted,” Miller says.
The island tour was a real eye opener, says Cummings, who is grateful that he was recruited for the job.
“The trip gave me an unbelievable perspective of how little we know of each other, even in our own state. They are facing this incredible devastation and destruction, yet they are moving on … it really hit me when we drove past the motel and many of them said, ‘That’s where I live,’ that these people are actually without homes,” Cummings says.
A long road ahead
In the days following the storm, Ball served as a shelter for storm refugees. The aftermath was worse than the hurricane itself, Schweitzer says. Not since the infamous hurricane of September 1900 has Galveston seen such devastation — displaced people, demolished structures, backed-up sewage, and death.
“When my husband and I returned to the island, the first thing that hit me was the god-awful smell,” Schweitzer says.
She says the fetid smell and the stories told by Galveston residents remind her of a book that she has read to her students, “A Weekend in September”, which is filled with personal accounts from survivors of the 1900 flood. Today, technology allows meteorologists to track storms so cities can evacuate, but in 1900, with no such technology, thousands perished.
When the high school reopened, Schweitzer says, the school expected about 500 of the 2,000 enrolled students to show up. But 1,800 returned. The school musical and most of the homecoming activities were called off, and the football stadium alone, they are told, will cost $8 million to repair.
Some of the students would commute daily from as far as Houston. But despite their own losses, they’re giving blood and participating in canned food drives in order to help others who have suffered.
“They are resilient, good kids, and they are so grateful for what Lakehill did for them,” Schweitzer says.
Pulling through, with help
Ekstrom’s eyes tear up as she talks about the response of the Galveston residents to the Lakehill students’ efforts.
“It was very emotional. [Schweitzer] told me that the day we were there was the first time those kids have laughed since the storm.”
The supplies were needed, but what meant the most was the camaraderie of the students from Dallas, Schweitzer says. “They came through with an energy that got us going again.”
Lakehill senior Alan Cox says he enjoyed meeting the Galveston high school students and plans to stay in touch with some of them, probably via MySpace. And student Rachael Mozelewski says the Lakehill volleyball team plans to hold a fundraiser for Ball in the spring.
“We want to keep up with them and their needs and keep helping out,” Mozelewski says.
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