The day after Teresa Davis absorbed the initial trauma of Hurricane Katrina, sifting through the shapeless pile of bricks that was once her roomy beachfront apartment in Gulfport, Miss., the 29-year-old casino worker performed a modern post-disaster ritual. She drove around, hunting for a cell phone signal.
Davis had heard that the nearby city of D'Iberville, Miss., was one of the only areas with a signal, so she drove there and tried to call her mother, Sharon Speaks of Prince William County, a federal government worker. After 20 minutes of busy tones and "all circuits are busy" messages, Davis finally got through.
"I said, 'Mom,' and I just started crying," Davis said last week. "I told her the house was gone and asked if I could stay with her."
The next day, she and her 6-year-old son, Avery, packed some clothes, DVDs and Avery's report card and immunization forms into her Honda and left for Dale City, where Avery became one of the first children evacuated because of Hurricane Katrina to enroll in Prince William public schools.
Northern Virginia schools are quickly becoming a haven for hundreds of children from the Gulf Coast who were left without a school. Enrollment figures for each district in Northern Virginia are constantly changing as more families make their way here.
As of last week, 31 children from Louisiana and Mississippi had enrolled in the Prince William school system, and about a dozen more are expected this week, said Irene Cromer, a schools spokeswoman. In Fairfax County, 72 children have enrolled, while Loudoun and Arlington counties each have 14, according to the latest figures.
Days after the hurricane struck, Virginia Department of Education officials instructed local school divisions to accept Katrina's victims as if they were homeless, without charging them out-of-state tuition and allowing them to extend the deadline for submitting immunization forms. In Prince William, the fee is about $9,000 a year, Cromer said.
Minnieville Elementary School in Woodbridge will host about five or six evacuated children, Principal Jarcelynn Hart said. Minnieville's social worker is helping find free clothing for the children and their parents, Hart said. The school will hold a fundraiser for other families left homeless by the hurricane, Hart said.
After three days of school at Minnieville Elementary, Avery reported that so far, so good. He's making friends, likes his classes and has only one quibble. "At all my other schools, I had long recess, but this school has a shorter recess," he said Friday.
His mother said that returning to any semblance of her old life counting money in the back room of a casino is impossible here. Not only are there are no casinos in Virginia, but it's unlikely that she can afford to live on her own here, with its comparatively expensive real estate market, the divorced mother said.
"I've seen signs saying townhouses start in the 700s. Down there, we have homes -- houses -- that start in the 120s," Davis said. "When I got here, I was like, 'Wow.' I don't even know how to say it."
Davis loved her old job and her old life, living in a $595-a-month, 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment on the beach in Gulfport, where she and her son could go to the pool every day. She said she is not sure she will ever return because she does not want to risk another hurricane.
"My life is so different now. I have to go back to live with my mother, and I'm used to coming and going as I please," she said. "I don't know anybody. I don't have any friends. But I do love my mom."
Davis worked at one of the glitziest casinos on the beach, the Beau Rivage Hotel and Casino in Biloxi, Miss., which withstood the brunt of the storm because, unlike most of its competitors, its barge was sunk into the sediment, Davis said.
With few exceptions since graduating high school, such as managing a McDonald's and working as a customer service agent for Cingular Wireless, the casino life is all she has known. Davis worked her way up and most recently was three weeks into a 12-week dealer school, which she was attending on a federal loan.
"Dealing is what makes your money in the casino, just because of the amount of tips you get. Dealers at the Beau were making $60,000," she said wistfully. "Money's the only thing I know."
The Beau Rivage had 1,800 slot machines and 92 tables games, raking in at least $2 million daily, she said.
While she waits to hear from the casino on whether it will send her checks until it reopens, as others have done for their employees, Davis has already applied for a teller position at a Wachovia bank and has an interview scheduled this month.
Meanwhile, she sits alone in her mother's home, thinking about what jobs to apply for next and checking out Mississippi newspaper Web sites for updates on friends and the casino business.
Because her home was on the beach, she was forced to evacuate, so she and Avery stayed in nearby Ocean Springs, Miss., with a relative. She paid little attention to the news because so many threats and storms had come before with only minor consequences.
As the wind became remarkably loud and sheets of rain poured down with astonishing volume, she began to worry more than usual. Roads were filled with water so high "you could see waves breaking," she said. Power was out. Tree limbs were bent over as if the place had been strafed.
Then, she said, she drove back to her home to check on the damage and found the entire beachfront destroyed.
Easy and beautiful living, all gone.
"I was looking around for what should have been there. There was no shape to the building anymore," she said. "I only found the cover of my son's bed. A green blanket."