The Reluctant Hero Of St. Bernard Parish

cobiella -- award winner
CBS
You wouldn't know it from Doris Voitier's conservative suit and quiet manner, but the superintendent of Saint Bernard Parish Schools is a force of nature.

"She has given her life to the children, to the parents, to St. Bernard Parish," teacher Tiffanie Glapion says.

In the days after Hurricane Katrina hit, this administrator turned into a rescuer.

Voitier showed CBS News correspondent Kelly Cobiella that water came right up to a school's overhang, which operated as a boat dock during the flooding. She helped pull hundreds of people onto the second floor of the high school — the only high ground.

"They just kept coming and coming and coming because this way was the only place where they felt they could be somewhat safe," Voitier says.

Floods damaged or destroyed every last home, business, and all 15 schools in the parish. FEMA wouldn't move fast enough for Voitier, so she launched her second rescue mission, ignoring the bureaucracy of FEMA, buying whatever she needed to rebuild with the district's reserves and loans — and sending FEMA the bill — and convincing teachers to come back and help her.

Pre-Katrina, would she have considered herself a rebel?

"Not really," she says. "I think pre-Katrina, I was basically, as most teachers and most educators are, a rule-follower. But I quickly saw that in a crisis situation, you had to throw all that out because nothing would get done."

Just 11 weeks after the storm, St. Bernard Parish had a school again, and 334 students. Today the numbers have swelled to 3,800 — and growing.

"They do look like they are having fun anyway," Voitier says of the students. "It makes me tremendously happy. There were so many dark days in the beginning, where you cry every day — you wonder what's going to happen from day to day. Then all I have to do is walk into a school and see them smiling and talking, and then we know what it is all about."

It still isn't easy. Voitier is still fighting to recoup $15 million from FEMA. But these days she relishes the role of rebel. It's the role of hero that makes her squirm. On Monday, Voitier became one of two 2007 recipients of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award.

"When people congratulate me on these awards, I feel a lot, very much embarrassed," she says, "because I don't think personally [I] have done anything that is exceptional."

Teachers, parents and hundred of kids would disagree.

"It is so great when they tell you they love you, huh?" Voitier admits.