The Campagna family watched Hurricane Katrina roll through their small town of Meraux, southeast of New Orleans, on a television at the Best Western in College Station, Tex. When Kerry Campagna realized the magnitude of the damage, he turned to his wife, Elba, and said, "We're going to have to find somewhere to start a life."
Elba Campagna said she doesn't remember the phone conversation that followed with her sister Michelle Serigne, who told her to bring her four children and their mother to stay with her family in South Riding.
"I was in shock," she said. "I'm still in shock that this has happened, that our whole life has to change."
Less than a week later, the family is living in the furnished basement of her sister's four-bedroom house. The combined families make three generations under one roof, including six boys under the age of 11.
Elba and Kerry Campagna are still wearing dazed expressions, but their family's process of starting over is well underway. Their two oldest sons, Daniel, 5, and Quinn, 7, started kindergarten and second grade Tuesday at Little River Elementary School with donated supplies and gym uniforms, and their 4-year-old son, Trey, has been enrolled at a private preschool free of charge.
Both Elba and Kerry Campagna, who worked for rival high schools in St. Bernard Parish, have started the application process for jobs in the Loudoun County and Fairfax County public school systems.
"We had nothing. We literally had nothing," Elba Campagna said, except the three outfits apiece they packed for what they thought would be a short trip. Now they have piles of donated clothes and gifts to sort through, and Elba Campagna said they feel far away from the first few terrible moments when they realized they couldn't go home.
Kerry Campagna said he tried to make decisions unemotionally the first few days after the hurricane.
"We can't go stand on our curb and estimate the value of what we lost because we don't have a curb to stand on anymore," he said. "God has given us these children, and the best thing we could do is get them to a place with a solid roof over their head and get them back to a normal life as soon as we can."
So, they got in their Ford Excursion and drove north. They left College Station at noon Tuesday, and drove to Monroe, La., the first night and found no power. Next, they drove to Jackson, Miss., but there were no vacant motel rooms. They parked outside a gas station, along with a lot of other vehicles headed north, so Elba Campagna, who was driving, could get a little sleep.
Kerry Campagna said he wanted to stay strong for his sons, but the next night, when they finally stopped at a hotel in Knoxville, Tenn., two of his sons curled up next to him, and he let go.
"All of a sudden Quinn felt my tears on his arms," he said. He told his 7-year-old he was sad about losing their home. Quinn responded, "I'm sad Dad, too, because I don't have any of my toys."
When the family arrived in South Riding on Thursday evening, Michelle tried to make things as much like home as possible. She set up a bed for the parents in one room, a crib for their 2-year-old toddler, Kyle, in a giant walk-in closet and three twin beds side by side in another room with plenty of toys for her nephews.
One twin bed was piled high with stuffed animals for Quinn. For Daniel, there were new hot-rod cars, and for Trey, there was a Spider-Man doll and Batman sheets.
On the night table next to Elba and Kerry's bed, was a Bible, a crucifix and a framed picture of their sons in front of a Christmas tree at their home in Meraux.
Elba Campagna said that when she saw the photo, one of the only snapshots she has since her baby books were left behind, "I just sat here and cried and cried and cried."
When something like this happens, she said, "It's easy to lose hope." But "the spirit of love" that she has felt through the help that neighbors have offered has made her feel better, she said.
Word spread quickly in South Riding through neighborhood chats, PTAs and book clubs that a family displaced by the hurricane needed help.
Within days, a group of neighbors had organized to bring dinner every night. Food Lion donated four shopping carts worth of food and a $100 gift card. Another group of neighbors pooled money so the family could buy an extra refrigerator to keep the food cold. Friends and strangers brought shopping bags of clothes and shoes, and someone came by with a bureau to keep them in.
And more gifts keep coming. On Monday morning, family friends Anna, 13, and Philip McQuitty, 11, stopped by with a card and $150 they had saved from their summer jobs babysitting and mowing lawns. "They need it more than I do," Anna said.
David Serigne, Michelle's husband, said they had received $5,000 to $6,000 just in cash donations. They are taking inventory of the things they have received so they can send what they don't need to other family members and friends who are now scattered across the South.
Kerry Campagna has family staying with his nephew in Lafayette and a sister in Baton Rouge. Michelle and Elba have brothers in Beaumont, Tex., and Mobile, Ala. David Serigne has 19 family members at his brother's house in Houma, west of New Orleans, desperate to find a place to rent or even buy so they can spread out.
For the Campagnas, in Virginia, their visit has some of the feel of a holiday gathering, cousins tackling each other on the carpet, and gifts piled high in the corner. But while the boys are playing games, the grown-ups are combing the newspaper for precious shreds of information about St. Bernard Parish, where they have seen little evidence of relief.
They are searching the Internet for glimpses of their old neighborhood, such as the picture of the high school where Elba Campagna was assistant principal that is now submerged, and making repeated attempts to dial the 540 area code and find out what has become of neighbors and friends.
But Elba Campagna said that as they watch people on television who are still in shelters and haven't had a bath, they feel very blessed.