NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – A school that became a relief center in the Rockaways after Superstorm Sandy is a school again.
Students began parading through the doors of Saint Francis de Sales School in Belle Harbor long before the bell rang Tuesday, eager to get back in their own school for the first time since Sandy nearly washed it away.
“I was slipping through the muddy floors and the sand trying to save records,” Principal Sister Patricia Chelius said the morning after the storm. “I just couldn’t believe what had happened to our beautiful school.”
The storm surge sent sea water pouring into the building. Floors and walls had to be replaced along with the entire electrical system.
As all that was being repaired, Saint Francis served as a central nerve center for the relief effort, providing food and clothing for members of the community.
“I think it’s good the children saw the recovery center here,” said Monsignor John Brown. “They saw the possibilities of what humans can do for one another.”
Meanwhile, most of the school’s 500 kids spent the past three months at a school in Brooklyn.
“It was about an hour going, an hour coming home,” said Terry-Anne McKnight, who has two boys, 4 and 7-years-old. “A lot of us in the neighborhood have lost a lot, but the children have lost a lot. They’ve lost their sports programs. They’ve lost their after school activities.”
But Tuesday morning, they returned to balloons and a sign that said “Welcome Home.”
“It was a lit easier getting them up this morning than other mornings,” she said. “Telling them that we were going back to Saint Francis, they were a lot happier.”
“We have come home and we are thrilled,” Chelius told WCBS 880 reporter Alex Silverman.
Students were still telling stories of how they escaped the storm.
Maddy McDade, 12, and her grandmother hitched a ride in a kayak.
“I was in the kayak with her, too and my dog,” she told 1010 WINS reporter Carol D’Auria. “And my bird. I had my bird in a box. I was very scared.”
Chelius said the feeling is that the whole country wants to see Saint Francis smile.
“We have a school in Massachusetts that’s making blue and gold scarfs for every single child and teacher,” she said.
“This gives new life,” said Brown, who said the community needed its kids. “You can see the absence of the young people immediately and the effect it has on people.”
Students got back to school just in time for Saint Francis to celebrate its 100th anniversary.