The first thing the Chase family, formerly of Chalmette, La., wants you to know is how lucky they are.
Lucky that Tana Chase, at 3 a.m. the morning they were going to evacuate, got up, looked at the television, saw that Hurricane Katrina was still heading their way, and, driven by some primal feeling she did not understand, began taking items such as pants and a hair straightener out of her suitcase and filling it instead with the children's framed baby pictures.
She also thought to grab one tiny box filled with irreplaceable mementos: the tiny reindeer bootie that daughter Eve, now 11, wore on her first Christmas, and the shoulder sling from when son Leo, now 9, broke his collarbone.
Lucky to receive the financial assistance from the Red Cross once they made it to her two brothers' homes in Arlington.
Lucky they now have a basement retreat in her sister's Fairfax County home in which to camp out. Lucky that neighbors there have helped out with food, clothing and twin beds for their kids.
"It's almost embarrassing how lucky we are," Tana Chase, 49, said.
She was sitting on a small couch near a foosball table in what used to be her sister's rec room -- what could be the Chase's family home for the next several months.
She and her husband, Greg, 49, have no jobs. They have no idea what condition their small, three-bedroom rancher in a working-class neighborhood just southeast of New Orleans will be in when they go back, whenever that is. It could be weeks before they know exactly how much was lost.
One thing they've already decided: Now that Katrina has turned their lives upside down, they'll be settling permanently in Northern Virginia. The couple, both New Orleans natives, left good jobs here to move back to New Orleans in 2000.
"We left Washington for the easy life in the Big Easy," Tana Chase said ruefully. "Look how much trouble it's gotten us into."
Displaced families such as the Chases have been turning up at municipal offices, Red Cross centers and charities throughout Northern Virginia in recent days, officials said. Most have ties to the area through relatives or friends and made their way east in ragtag form -- some hitching rides or taking the bus, others rescued by family members. Most have nothing more than what they could carry.
"Most of the people left thinking they would be gone for one to two days, so they didn't pack very much," said Dawn Matterness, director of disaster services for the Alexandria Red Cross.
The Red Cross has been providing financial help in the form of debit cards -- the value of each card varies by family size and need -- and directing the evacuees to other local agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"They've been fairly upbeat," Matterness said. "The biggest concern I've seen is people without their medications . . . but once we get them into a stable environment with medications, knowing where their next meal is coming from, they seem to be able to relax and consider the next step."
The Red Cross's Arlington chapter has helped more than 100 displaced people, and the Alexandria chapter has helped at least 79, officials said. The Catholic Diocese of Arlington is helping seven displaced families through Catholic Charities, said spokesman Soren Johnson.
Throughout Northern Virginia, school systems are opening their doors to displaced students -- 111 in Fairfax, 24 in Loudoun County, 17 in Arlington County and five in Alexandria. Prince William has enrolled 31 students, and expects a dozen more.
Local governments have been sending teams of emergency workers and other personnel to help along the Gulf Coast. Arlington County sent a team of six emergency managers last Wednesday. Alexandria is sending 10 firefighters. Fairfax County sent its renowned search and rescue team.
On Tuesday, a 10-member team representing senior managers from Alexandria, and Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties left for New Orleans as part of the region's coordinated response to the disaster. The group, which includes a county executive, police chief, emergency managers and regional fire department managers, will help with city management.
Officials are working on providing mental health services to evacuees and helping them to cope with their new circumstances. For example, most local evacuees are bunking with relatives, often in close quarters, which could become a strain over time, officials said.
Margot Richters, the clinical psychologist who is in charge of mental health for the 150 hurricane evacuees still in the D.C. Armory, said it will take months or years for survivors to recover, even if they are the lucky ones whose family members could take them in. She counsels evacuee families to continue to talk through the tragedy together and to try to reestablish routines as quickly as possible.
"One of the most important things for people recovering from trauma is that initial sense of safety," Richters said. "The second is getting into regular routines, to push to get the kids in school. The same is true of adults. They need to make connections into the community and get back to doing the kinds of things they did before, whether it is attending church or something else. . . . This is going to be really hard for people being displaced from the South, because this really isn't the South. It's really a different pace of life, a really different lifestyle."
For the Chases, reality has not yet really sunk in. The family vacationed here with Tana's sister Elise Dubois and her family last month, so to be back in the Dubois family home in the Alexandria section of Fairfax just days later seems a tad surreal.
"It seems like maybe we're on vacation, but we're in school," said Eve, who, along with her brother, has been enrolled in Stratford Landing Elementary.
The two sets of parents have tried to set ground rules as two sets of kids headed to two different schools -- the Dubois children are in private school -- and an entire family has taken up residence in what used to be the Dubois children's play room. Now the room has a table that serves as Greg Chase's office, where he has launched a job search via his cell phone and laptop computer, donated twin beds for the kids, a kitchenette with a microwave and refrigerator and a guest room and bathroom for the parents.
Though they're the first to stress that their surroundings are luxurious compared with those of other survivors, this is hardly the ending that the Chases imagined on leaving the rat race of Washington and their good jobs -- Greg worked as a marketing manager for Fairfax County, Tana as a federal attorney -- to return to New Orleans in 2000, where they hoped for a simpler life.
They moved into Greg's boyhood home in a blue-collar neighborhood between two oil refineries, where the neighboring houses were filled with other young couples like them -- natives who had missed the slower pace of Southern life and decided to return. Their house became a magnet for neighborhood children. "I'd close my eyes, and with all the kids running around it was 1965 all over again," Greg said fondly.
Knowing that their close-knit neighborhood has been lost, drowned in a matter of hours by a wall of water, is almost worse than losing their home, Tana said.
"I wish I could explain the instant sense of community that I felt there," she said.
They have not been back since they evacuated in the small sedan early Sunday morning, the day before Katrina hit land. They went first to Tallahassee and then to Arlington, where Tana Chase's two brothers live. The family was split between the two houses before reuniting in Fairfax, where Tana Chase's sister has more room.
These days, sitting on the couch in their new digs, the Chases pore over satellite photos of their neighborhood on Greg's laptop.
It seems that their house isn't underwater anymore, Greg tells Leo. At least one of Mr. Landry's oak trees survived, he says. Leo's school, Lacoste Elementary, is gone.
The small software company where Greg was cheerfully "underemployed" as a customer-service representative is also gone: Greg wasn't paid last Friday, and so the Chases are temporarily without income, except what they can begin scraping together from relief agencies. The Arlington chapter of the Red Cross gave them a debit card valued at $450, and Greg got a $2,500 advance on his claim with State Farm insurance. The family is hoping for a $2,000 check from FEMA soon.
The family has already decided not to return to New Orleans, except for a visit when the all-clear comes to see what, if anything, can be salvaged from their house. Greg is looking for a job, and Tana hopes to revive her part-time home business as an editor.
They hope to buy a new home, maybe in the Springfield neighborhood where they once lived. Already they're spooked by the Washington area's super-high real estate prices.
"I'm trying to focus," Greg said. "We've got to look forward and can't look back. . . . The reality is our community is gone. . . . Can you imagine 30,000 people trying to rebuild at the same time? I don't want the kids to go through that. It would disrupt their lives for a long time. And [a hurricane] could happen again."