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Basilica School in Key West reopens after Irma

Eighty percent of students are back but region faces distressed housing situation

Robert Wright, principal of the Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West, speaks with volunteers from the archdiocese who delivered a caravan of emergency supplies Sept. 26 to locations throughout the Florida Keys as that region recovers from Hurricane Irma. The donated items had been collected at a dozen Catholic schools and parishes in Miami following the storm and left at hard-hit sites from Key Largo to Key West.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Robert Wright, principal of the Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West, speaks with volunteers from the archdiocese who delivered a caravan of emergency supplies Sept. 26 to locations throughout the Florida Keys as that region recovers from Hurricane Irma. The donated items had been collected at a dozen Catholic schools and parishes in Miami following the storm and left at hard-hit sites from Key Largo to Key West.

KEY WEST | The Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West resumed its full-time academic schedule Sept. 25 following the Sept. 10 landfall of Hurricane Irma, but not without a few setbacks left by the Category 4 storm.

Robert Wright, principal of the Basilica School since 2013, was able to return to the school relatively quickly and secure the assistance of a professional crew to begin some of the heavy debris removal on the historic grounds.

Robert Wright, principal of the Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West, watches as volunteers from the Archdiocese of Miami deliver emergency supplies Sept. 26. The donated items had been collected at a dozen Catholic schools and parishes in Miami following the storm and left at hard-hit sites from Key Largo to Key West.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Robert Wright, principal of the Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West, watches as volunteers from the Archdiocese of Miami deliver emergency supplies Sept. 26. The donated items had been collected at a dozen Catholic schools and parishes in Miami following the storm and left at hard-hit sites from Key Largo to Key West.

The auditorium at the Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West suffered severe roofing damage as a result of Hurricane Irma. The storm caused other damage to the property, including to the paint of a new building that is under construction at the school campus.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

The auditorium at the Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West suffered severe roofing damage as a result of Hurricane Irma. The storm caused other damage to the property, including to the paint of a new building that is under construction at the school campus.

The school auditorium suffered severe ceiling damage and water incursion, and Irma’s sea spray and wind damaged the paint on a new building under construction.

Many of the school property’s most majestic trees fell in one case partially wrecking a 100-year-old stone fence while other trees were severely damaged.

“We have been working around the clock with a lot of generous people,” Wright told the Florida Catholic during a Sept. 26 tour of the property.

“We were able to contract with a cleanup crew and they have been doing a lot of heavy lifting. We returned to school full time yesterday, with about 80 percent of the student body before Hurricane Irma.”

After the storm, Wright offered the school space as a part-time day care center and safe space for local families who needed emergency day care for their children. Now, with classes resuming full-time, the school has offered some of the available student openings to families who suffered even greater loss further north in the Middle or Lower Keys.

The Florida Keys areas of Marathon and Big Pine Key suffered the most damage during Hurricane Irma.

“We have been taking families without schools, so between yesterday and today we had nine families from the Big Pine area come down to the school temporarily. Many lost their homes and are coming to new housing in Stock Island or Key West,” he said, adding that some of them are expected to become yearlong members of the school community.

Access to the Lower Keys had been restricted since the hurricane but full access was restored at the end September and Key West declared itself open for business Oct. 1. Regional officials hope to lure tourists back to jumpstart the economic recovery of the area.

The school’s staff and faculty are doing well, Wright noted, although “we had seven staff lose their home or have significant damages and of those I have lost several that won’t be returning,” he said.

Wright also praised local utility companies for restoring electricity in Key West relatively quickly.

“The response from Keys Energy was incredible and because we got the power on so quickly I was able to pressurize the system because we have a well at the school,” Wright said. “Marathon and Big Pine got the bulk of the storm surge and some of those folks took in 10 feet of water. We were very fortunate here.”

The PreK3 through eighth grade school had some 300 students before Irma, most of whom evacuated with their families in advance of the hurricane. The Basilica School has been educating the children of Key West since 1868. It is located next to the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish in the heart of Key West.

Robert Wright, principal of the Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West, speaks with Kathy Mesa, a member of St. John Neumann Parish in Miami. She was one of the volunteers from the archdiocese who delivered a caravan of emergency supplies Sept. 26 to locations throughout the Florida Keys as that region recovers from Hurricane Irma. The donated items had been collected at a dozen Catholic schools and parishes in Miami following the storm and left at hard-hit sites from Key Largo to Key West.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Robert Wright, principal of the Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West, speaks with Kathy Mesa, a member of St. John Neumann Parish in Miami. She was one of the volunteers from the archdiocese who delivered a caravan of emergency supplies Sept. 26 to locations throughout the Florida Keys as that region recovers from Hurricane Irma. The donated items had been collected at a dozen Catholic schools and parishes in Miami following the storm and left at hard-hit sites from Key Largo to Key West.


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