In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the people of New Orleans and Louisiana received assistance from all over the country – including Long Island – to help rebuild. When Hurricane Sandy hit, leaving destruction in its path, Paul and Rhonda Perez as well as Steve Houte made the trek north to help in any way they could, winding up helping rebuild homes out in Amityville.
“We’ve come up here quite a few times since the storm,” Rhonda Perez said. “This has been by far the best thing that has happened to us since Katrina, to know them. This is not a repayment of a favor, this is the least we could do, this is our family, this is definitely our New York family.”
That family involves the Marianist brothers of Chaminade High School in Mineola as well as many members of the faculty.
After Katrina, Rhonda and her husband Paul, a certified financial planner, were struggling to figure out how to put the pieces of their life back together.
“We were in St. Bernard parish, got wiped out and we were living in Baton Rouge two weeks after the storm,” Paul recalls of their home in Chalmette, but “we are doing better every day,” he admits after moving 60 miles away.
The power was knocked out at their home for months following the storms.
“The home was basically uninhabitable,” Perez said.
Located close to an oil refinery, it is still the site of the largest oil spill in the continental United States.
“We had 8 ft. of water in our house for weeks, toxic oil,” Perez said.
Two weeks later, Hurricane Rita hit with a tornado destroying their roof.
“We were struggling to figure out how to get our kids back in school and a school in New Orleans by the name of Brother Martin, run by the Sacred Heart Brothers, I believe, decided that they were going to open up in Baton Rouge and utilize another Catholic high school’s campus.”
Once they arrived, Perez likened the atmosphere during orientation to that of a homecoming.
“You saw people you hadn’t seen since the storm,” he said.
Then when they were sitting on the gymnasium bleachers, it dawned on him “and we all start realizing we don’t have anything and you couldn’t buy it because all the essential goods were wiped out, taken. So, you could buy all the Rolex watches you wanted, but you couldn’t buy a belt or a pair of underwear or a pillowcase or anything.”
That’s when Bro. Bob Lahey, S.M. of Chaminade High School and teachers Peter Piro and Frank DeVito arrived at the school with a truck full of bookbags that had been packed with supplies by students, including new pencils, papers, calculators, notebooks and a letter of support from Chaminade students to those of New Orleans who were moved to Baton Rouge.
“We were sort of overwhelmed,” Perez said of the “Project: New Hope” initiative that Ft. Garrett Long, S.M. had spearheaded at the Mineola school. Perez struck up a fast friendship with the men, inviting them to stay at their home instead of sleeping in their truck, letting them use bunkbeds in the garage they had set up for their kids.
“And they came over. and that started what’s now been 7 years under New Hope relationship with Chaminade High School,” Perez said.
“It was just a coincidence that we were at the school, we were lucky to get him into a school,” Mrs. Perez said of her son. The school was only accepting Brother Martin students, but the Perezs had one sleeping by their home who had been displaced and accepted their son because of that circumstance.
The Perezs maintained contact with the brothers, who made the 1,300-mile trip south every year during the winter recess, spending the first few years after the disaster on rebuilding efforts in St. Stanislaus on the Louisiana coast.
By the third year the area was rebuilt and the Perezs had become affiliated with the St. Bernard Project, a charity that focuses on rebuilding homes, and meeting another Chaminade connection as Dick Kearns, an alumni from the Class of 1956 was also involved in the St. Bernard project through his employer, Zurich, a sponsor of a PGA tournament in New Orleans.
“I think he was looking for charities to help – PGA’s primary focus is charities – and somebody gave him the name of the St. Bernard Project,” Perez said, discovering Kearns was an alumnus over lunch.
When Sandy hit Long Island, “Paul and I immediately, were like ‘we have to go up’, Mrs. Perez said. “I mean, that’s just something we were talking about. They’re feeling of being overwhelmed, they’re feeling it, they’re feeling it’s just oh my goodness, when’s this going to stop? And no electricity, the nor’easter that came through. You all have certainly had your share of destruction.”
But it was Haute who was the catalyst for the trip, telling Perez that “I know you’re trying to figure out how to help the people” and bringing his builder’s expertise – which he employs as a hobby – to the project.
“Steve is very much involved in helping anybody who needs anything. He’s an amazing builder, rebuilder of housing.” Perez said.
“Since the storm that’s all I’ve been doing to help people,” Haute said.
“My initial idea was to come up here and cook, I love to cook and I love to eat,” Perez said, thinking of setting up camp on a corner and serve food. “I remember post-Katrina, I remember getting fed and how wonderful that felt and I thought ‘I’m going to do the same thing’.”
Post-Sandy, Chaminade President Bro. Thomas Cleary, S.M. had sent a letter to parents and alumni asking if there was anything that the school could do to help those most devastated by the storm.
“This one family, Cooney family of a freshman, they were the first ones to send back with a lot of details so we went there,” Fr. Garrett said of the home of the family in Amityville.
“It was nice to help him because you could tell he was getting very frustrated at all the work he had to do,” Mrs Perez said of the Cooneys, noting that the student’s father is also a New York City firefighter. “And not only that, he has a man that he takes care of to make sure he’s ok, who lives down his street, who’s 80 years old and they couldn’t find him because he got evacuated through the storm, so he wanted to gut his house before he got home so that he could help rebuild it and have it ready for him when he came home.”
The elderly neighbor was evacuated to a shelter at St. Joseph’s College.
For two days the Perezs, Haute, Chaminade students and members of the St. Bernard project worked on the home that is located near the water, cutting sheetrock and installing insulation.
“It’s basically tearing down a house but anything 4-ft and up stays, anything 4-ft. and down goes,” Perez said, speaking from his own house flooding experience and able to relate possibly more than any other worker to what is being experienced on the south shore.
“I was out. I didn’t know I was out,” Perez said of his experience after Katrina and Rita. “For however many weeks it was, I was out and I felt like ‘ok, it’s over’ and then they showed up. I think there are people here who feel that way; they show up at their house each day, they are overwhelmed, they just can’t see a future. One of my main objectives is to instill in them that ‘you’re going to be ok, this is gonna work, you’re gonna come out stronger than when you went it. You don’t see it today because you’re in the middle of the storm but when it’s all over you will be a stronger person than you ever were. And that’s what happened to me; I have more faith today than I have ever had in my entire life.”