Wearing a borrowed navy-blue jumper, white polo shirt and shiny new knapsack that matched the pink sneakers that are her only shoes, Gabrielle Sorina stood inside the front door of Will Rogers Elementary School and cried.
It was 8:05 a.m. on her first day of first grade in a new school near her family's new home, a Fairfield Inn next to an interstate in Houston, 350 miles from New Orleans. Her grandmother clutched her right hand, her father her left. Grandma tried to get Gabrielle to think back to when they visited last Friday, how it wasn't so scary. "You didn't meet any kids, but what did they offer us?" Brenda Sorina, 62, asked. "Ice cream and some nachos," whispered the 6-year-old, then she turned, hid her head in her grandmother's blouse and whimpered some more.
"I don't know anybody," Gabrielle said softly.
Tuesday was a day of next steps for thousands of children in Houston -- Texas's largest settlement of evacuees. Not that their parents know where they will be living next month, or next week, or even tomorrow. But for the Sorinas and so many others stranded here, school represents something predictable and familiar in their upside-down existence in hotel rooms, shelters and temporary apartments.
School officials in Houston and its suburbs said they are preparing for as many as 10,000 students who have fled Katrina to enroll in their schools in the coming weeks. They are scrambling to find thousands of seats, supplies and new teachers, and are reopening two elementary schools that had been mothballed.
Most of the new enrollees will end up in the city, the area's largest district with 210,000 students, but where enrollment is declining as many middle-class whites flee to suburban districts. School administrators are mobilizing a massive registration to start Wednesday at the Astrodome and three smaller convention centers, where a combined 25,000 evacuees are staying, with the goal of getting the bulk of children into classes by Monday.
But by the end of the school day today, the Houston Independent School District had taken in 889 students, most from families that fled before the hurricane swept through. They had a head start on neighbors who had to be rescued, more means, perhaps. But the disorientation was no different.
The first day of school can be traumatic for any kindergarteners or first-graders. But the fear and confusion of the new surroundings is often lessened by the familiar faces of neighborhood chums. For the children who have escaped Katrina, however, friends may be scattered across the United States.
"We're so brokenhearted about all this," said Cheryl Wolfe, the magnet coordinator at Will Rogers, which takes children from all over the city. It was 9:15 a.m., and families from Louisiana were still streaming into the front office. Fifteen kids so far.
"I think these kids will fit right in," she said. "We're like a little United Nations here."
Will Rogers, built in 1951, with its proud motto, "Where All Stars Shine Brightly," is scheduled to be mothballed at the end of the school year because of declining enrollment. But it is a godsend to the neighborhood now, with room for 10 children in most classrooms.
The school has provided uniforms, backpacks and supplies for the newcomers, and parents have donated clothes and coloring books. "My son met these kids and said, 'Mom, I can't believe it, they don't have a home. Where are they going to live?' " Nancy Rodriguez, an immigrant from Mexico, recalled her fourth-grader, Richard, saying when he came home from school on Friday.
Several new parents said they were relieved at how welcomed they felt at the school. One less stress to contend with.
"I'm very pleased," Candice Joseph said when she enrolled her 5-year-old this morning. Her fifth-grader started school last Friday. "Okley told me he made two friends. He sat down and did his homework. Boy, that felt good."
Ron Dominy, a principal accustomed to welcoming newcomers to his transient school of disadvantaged black and Latino children in southwest Houston, approached Gabrielle Sorina after shaking the hands of another tiny new student that Hurricane Katrina had displaced into his front office. "What's your name, dear?" he asked her, then called out to an aide to see which classroom she was assigned to. "Your regular teacher is out today, so today your teacher will be Mrs. Hemmis," he said kindly.
They walked down the hall to Room 9, past the familiar sights of an elementary school bursting with the energy of the school year's start: kids' drawings, maps, smiling teachers. But to Gabrielle, who was seated at an extra table next to a boy named Anthony who just relocated from Florida, it was sheer terror. "This is a new student from Louisiana," the substitute teacher told the class. "Hi Gabrielle!" the children called out. Then she continued with her lesson, as if little had changed during past few days. "Who else wants to share what they did this weekend?" she asked.
Gabrielle was sobbing now. Her father, Gary, a barber with a thriving business in New Orleans until 10 days ago, went in and spent a few minutes trying to calm her. Then Grandma brought in a Kleenex. Finally, they gave up and walked away, anxious to get to their next stop, registering Gabrielle's 4-year-old twin brothers in pre-kindergarten. "I told her I know how it feels," Brenda Sorina said. "It happens to me. You well up, and you just don't know what to do with yourself."
The Sorinas and their extended family are on their second hotel since they fled New Orleans at 5 a.m. last Sunday, driving 12 hours until they found an Embassy Suites, where they usually stay on vacation. They learned two days ago that Brenda's 81-year-old mother, who refused to leave, is safe in Baton Rouge. Gary planned to look today for an apartment to rent near Will Rogers elementary. "At least half my clients have moved to Texas," he said of his barbershop.
He has been worried about his daughter, who has been biting her nails and putting her hands in her mouth, he said. He is sure it is anxiety. The Sorinas' adjustment is complicated by divorce. Gabrielle's mother, Gary's ex-wife, is stranded in Baton Rouge. Katrina bore down on Louisiana the weekend Gary had custody of the kids. "She says she wants to come get them," he said, referring to his ex-wife. He doesn't know what is more disruptive, staying here or moving the children once more.
They were not in the car 20 minutes when Gary's cell phone rang. It was the school. Gabrielle had an awful stomachache and was in the front office crying. They turned around and headed back to Will Rogers. Gary Sorina found his daughter rubbing her stomach.
"I know you're nervous," he told her, while her grandmother ran back to her classroom to retrieve her knapsack. "Daddy's here."
They left, hoping for a better start tomorrow morning.