On Amber Grush's first day of school in Howard County, her bus driver had a big reaction upon hearing that Amber is from the New Orleans area.
"Come here, you need a hug!" the woman said, giving Amber, 11, a squeeze and a kiss on the cheek.
The driver concluded, correctly, that Amber and her 10-year-old brother, Gage, are in Maryland because they were forced out of their home by Hurricane Katrina.
Word spread fast at their new schools, Hammond Middle and Atholton Elementary. The two kids from St. Charles Parish, 20 miles west of New Orleans, became minor celebrities.
"Kids have been coming up to me and saying, 'Oh, it's too bad your house was damaged,' " Gage said. "Everyone's been so nice and kind and generous." Neighbors bought the family a bed and donated clothes and gift cards to help out.
At least through the end of the school year, Gage and Amber will be living with their aunt, uncle and two cousins in Columbia. They know they are luckier than thousands of others in Katrina's path who died or were stuck for days in large shelters. With their father, stepmother and step-siblings, Amber and Gage fled from their home very early on Aug. 29, before the massive storm slammed the Gulf Coast.
They drove to Dallas, Texas, where they checked into a small hotel room. Their house was severely damaged, with a torn-up roof, a torn-off porch and lots of water damage, their neighbors have told them.
Figuring that life wouldn't be normal in the New Orleans area for many months, the family put Amber and Gage on a plane (by themselves!) to go live with their Maryland relatives, whom they knew pretty well. Another reason the plan seemed to make sense: Their National Guardsman dad (who has served two tours of duty in Iraq) is going to be very busy now helping the Guard with post-Katrina recovery.
"We're okay, everybody in our family, even the pets, made it," said Amber. "The times I've wanted to cry is when I've seen the people on their roofs or thought of the people trapped in their attics." Some kids they know lost their grandparents.
So how is their new life in peaceful Columbia?
"Great! It's going to be a fun adjustment," said Amber. The other day their aunt Pat made jambalaya, a special New Orleans stew. Gage's same-age cousin, Jake, is going to take him snow-tubing (Gage has never seen snow!) and they're both hoping for a snowboard. One of the family's two Dalmatians has taken to snuggling up on Gage's bed.
Still, there are plenty of challenges for kids such as Amber and Gage who are showing up at schools in this area and across the country. More than 135,000 Louisiana students and 35,000 from Mississippi won't be able to return to their schools for months because of storm damage.
The hurricane victims have spread out across the country. Amber and Gage's grandmother and great-grandmother, with whom they have lived at times, went to Iowa. (Their house was totally wrecked.) The kids' mom, who lived nearby, is now in New York, but talks with Amber and Gage every day.
So, what does the future hold for them, after Columbia? Amber says they will probably move to Texas. Gage just gets a worried look: "Every time we talk about it, it gives me a headache."
-- Fern Shen