Since November 2004, the world was rocked with the news of a murderous tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed more than 200,000 people in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and many other countries; a treacherous earthquake took the life of more than 73,000 people in Pakistan and South Asia; the Gulf Coast was visited by the evil sisters Katrina and Rita in a year that saw record numbers of hurricanes; the fight against terror visited London and Spain; North Koreans awakened the world as they tested a nuclear bomb; and the war in Iraq wages on. America couldn’t be blamed if she doesn’t remember a tiny little town in LaSalle Parish that made national headlines one fall day. No, the Jena Six controversy was still three years away. In November 2004, the little town of Olla, Louisiana, was ripped to shreds by a killer tornado that left much of the town homeless and displaced.
The citizenry in and around Olla pulled together to first clean up their town and then shouldered the task of rebuilding. The National Guard was deployed to help the town haul multiple tons of debris to local landfills. Much of that debris was once the high school that was the center of the town’s activities. The Red Cross offered help in the immediate aftermath. Although the government was there to help clean up the mess, bean counters and bureaucrats made the decision that Olla, Louisiana, did not qualify for federal and state assistance. The total number of homes destroyed did not rise to the level that politicians felt would be worth spending taxpayer money to help the stunned people rebuild. There simply were not enough potential votes in the next election to warrant such governmental assistance. The insurance money was insufficient to rebuild the sort of facility needed in today’s world. Community and private donations of money and physical assistance, with the help of church groups from across the state, helped but the people back on their feet. The world moved on to more interesting, more important news stories.
The LaSalle Parish school board began converting the old Holloway building, which was an old garment factory, into the new home of the LaSalle Tigers. There were no classrooms, no windows, no laboratories or gyms. The huge building was simply sectioned off by temporary dividers with no ceilings, and the teachers learned to teach with the sound of other teachers teaching in the background. The children learned to learn with the sound of other students learning in the background. “Holloway High” became home for the freshman class of 2004-05 with the promise that one day soon they would be moving back into a brand new LaSalle High School.
That promise was long coming. Three senior classes graduated from the garment factory, but the people of Olla did not complain. They worked hard. They didn’t just survive: They flourished. Their sports teams dominated district competitions. Their students excelled academically. And their principal kept a promise to that freshman class. They raised their own money locally through the school board to supplement what the insurance could not give and the government would not give. The teachers and support workers did much of the work inside. They moved the furniture, desks, and cabinets to the new campus. On Thursday, February 7, 2008, the students of LaSalle High School attended a brand new school in time to see the senior class of 2007-08 graduate from a real, honest to goodness school building.
The students were like kids in a candy store. The teachers were too. One young man kept going into the classrooms counting the windows. Several of the students were lost in the halls, looking for classes, and laughing hysterically that there were halls to be lost in. It was the biggest moment in the life of this community since that evening, four years ago, when a devastating tornado and an uninterested government stole the innocence of this quiet little town. America probably didn’t notice. But the Olla community learned a lesson about hard work, persistence, and patience today.