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Advice for LIers comes from Hurricane Katrina victims

Clockwise frpm left, Chaminade High School volunteers Gilbert

Clockwise frpm left, Chaminade High School volunteers Gilbert Onu, 14, of Elmont; Christopher McDonald, 14, of Kings Park, and Terence Hunter, 16, of Rockville Centre, work side by side with Steve Houte of Mandeville, Louisiana in a flood-damaged Amityville home. (Nov. 12, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Their house was flooded with 9 feet of swamp water and it stayed for two weeks, leaving behind several species of snakes and 8 inches of stinking, slippery, chocolate brown silt.

Rhonda and Paul Perez, now both 51, were heartsick when Hurricane Katrina destroyed their four-bedroom Acadian in Chalmette, La., in 2005. The family owned a house in Baton Rouge, La., where their son lived with his college roommates -- they all moved in and stayed for nine months.

Another son, Russell, was 14 and a high school freshman when Katrina hit. He was forced to switch schools after his was ruined and had to attend classes at night as his new campus operated in shifts to accommodate the displaced.

Nothing was the same and the family was bereft. But hope came in many forms.

Paul Perez speaks with a halting voice when he remembers the backpack Russell received from a student at Chaminade High School in Mineola. In it were pens, pencils, notebooks and a letter that said, in short, "We've got your back. It's going to get better."

The backpack, along with other volunteer efforts, were crucial for the family, Paul Perez said.

"It gave us the faith that no matter what happens, somebody will come to help," he said.

When the Perezes heard about superstorm Sandy, they boarded a plane for Long Island and teamed up with Chaminade students to help repair homes in Amityville, where some houses took in 2 feet of water.

Joe Cooney, 49, a New York City firefighter, owns one of the damaged houses. He was so moved by the Perez family's and the students' efforts that he was motivated "to do more" for others, he said.

As for the Chaminade students themselves, they had visited Louisiana and Mississippi every year since Katrina.

Their recovery efforts down South -- which also included the removal of damp wallboard and the spackling of new walls -- helped prepare them for what Sandy left behind, they said. Christopher Heller, 17, a Chaminade senior from Syosset, said the damage in Amityville reminds him of what he saw in Louisiana, "down to the studs."

He said the people he's helped have been grateful, and he hopes volunteer efforts help restore their optimism.

"I feel like I'm actually helping somebody," he said, standing outside a damaged home in Amityville. "It's great."

As for the Perez family, they think it will take two years for Amityville to recover, adding that residents will likely spend months negotiating with their insurance companies.

"Don't lose hope," Paul Perez advised. "And help each other."

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