A friendship forged by Katrina

2006: Katrina forces Mississippi school to integrate
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Story highlights

  • Hurricane Katrina destroyed St. Peter the Apostle Catholic School
  • St. Peter's combined forces with Resurrection Catholic School
  • Two girls who met as a result of Katrina remain close friends 10 years later

(CNN)Hurricane Katrina ripped into Pascagoula, Mississippi, with unprecedented strength 10 years ago. Churning waters 4 feet high carried a mix of raw sewage and mud through the classrooms at Resurrection Catholic School, ripping maps and posters off the walls and consuming shelves of textbooks as floodwaters rose.

Parents and teachers couldn't believe what they found when the roads finally reopened.
"I will never forget that day," Elizabeth Benefield, the elementary school's principal, recalled from her office at the now-restored school. "It was very much a surreal experience. The parents came in and started gutting the building and created a pile of debris at the edge of the road -- that's how committed our parents were to getting the school going again."
    Six miles away, nothing was left to save at St. Peter the Apostle Catholic School, a historically black elementary school. All was gone except for one auxiliary building. For the generations of African-American families who had sent children and grandchildren to the school, St. Peter's was just a memory.
    By the time Resurrection reopened two months later, in October 2005, there was more than new flooring and furniture: The school community now included 100 African-American students from St. Peter's, Benefield said.
    "It was a hard transition for the kids," she said. "But our kids were very open and accepting, and everybody was kind of in the same boat. They had all experienced great loss and had homes destroyed. So they all really formed new friendships and bonds."
    Six months after Katrina hit, St. Peter's was still the scene of utter destruction, with desks and textbooks strewn in the rubble of fallen buildings. But amid the loss and rebuilding, the disaster forged new friendships in the Resurrection community.
    Kered Graves and Cristina Cardenas were both 9 when Katrina reshaped the world they knew. Cardenas attended predominately white Resurrection, while Graves had gone to predominately black St. Peter's. They instantly became best friends.
    Kered Graves, left, and Cristina Cardenas became friends when their schools joined forces after Katrina.
    "When only white people were here, I only had like five friends. And now I have more friends," Cardenas told CNN's Randi Kaye in February 2006, a few months after her school had grown enormously.
    Graves echoed that sentiment. "I didn't have much white friends there at all," she said then. "There was a whole black school. And I was like, that can't be right. I mean, I loved St. Peter's with my whole heart. It's just that I want white friends. I couldn't take it."
    Graves soon got her wish as Resurrection welcomed the students and teachers of the destroyed St. Peter's with open arms.
    Graves' mother, Waukeita Chestang-Graves, attended St. Peter's school as a child, as did her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. "The loss of St. Peter's was devastating to the African-American community," she said this week. "But with all the differences when these kids were thrust into another school with children of all races, they had the common element of their faith."
    Today, Graves and Cardenas remain close friends. They're in their first month of college, having left home a decade after the tragedy that first brought them together.
    "We just clicked," Graves said on the phone recently, walking across the Jackson State University campus on her first day of college. "Cristina and I ended up in the same class growing up and just clicked."
    Cardenas shares similar memories. "Kered and I definitely got along right away. She's just a great person, and she ended up being a close friend," she said during a break between her classes at East Mississippi Community College. "Ten years later, it's cool to see how we all grew up, and after everything, we can all manage to call each other friends after so long."
    Both women said they feel their experience with Katrina at such a young age has made going off to college easier.
    "A lot of my new friends are talking about how hard it is to make this huge transition to college," Graves said, "but honestly I went through so much more when I was a 9-year-old, busing to a brand new school after mine was totally destroyed. This is nothing."
    Cardenas agreed, remembering that "at first it was intimidating to have all these new kids in our school, but we just wanted to help them out. And now, making new friends in college is easier."
    Ten years after Katrina, the students, parents and staff of Resurrection can see the unexpected blessings that came along with their pain.
    The school has truly been resurrected, with a new 30,000-square-foot activity building featuring a computer lab, kitchen, gym, art and music center, and library.
    "By the grace of God, we have a blessing from the devastation that was there," Benefield said. "St. Peter's (church parish) often shares the facility with us, and now a bond has formed between the two parishes. Our friendship continues today."