From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Even against the backdrop of Katrina's shocking devastation, the stunned expressions and terror-filled stories of the Gulf Coast's children hit a particular nerve. With the cornerstones of their security upended—relatives and friends scattered or missing, toys and pets gone, neighborhoods obliterated—youngsters from across the region now find themselves in shelters or the homes of relatives in unfamiliar towns, some without even the comfort of a parent to ease the transition. In Louisiana alone, 135,000 students will find themselves in new classrooms; in Mississippi, some 160,000 will be affected. Experts say being back in school—any school—will help restore a sense of normal life. For some children, though, it will take more—a return to home.

GIRL INTERRUPTED
(Diary of a Preteen Evacuee)

AUG. 31: My school, Kreole Elementary, was destroyed, the whole roof was gone. We went next to Grandma and PawPaw's. It was completely destroyed by wind and flooding. It was so sad because my grandmother lost everything.

So begins the diary of 11-year-old Tiana Parker, who on Sept. 2 arrived at a refugee center in a church gymnasium in Robertsdale, Ala., with her mother, Sonja Black, 32, and two sisters, Dannika, 8, and Daysha, 5. The family's former home—a women's shelter in coastal Mississippi where they'd moved from Ohio just two months ago to be closer to relatives—was seriously damaged in the storm. In a journal given to her by a volunteer, Tiana began to retell her hurricane experience.

SEPT. 1: Since we had no electricity, my mother had to pull all the meat out of the freezer. PawPaw [her grandfather Phillip Robinson, 47, who, along with his wife, Joyce, 56, had been living nearby at a friend's house] cooked the meat on the grill outside before it spoiled. It was so hot and no air was moving at all. We all were getting bit by ants and mosquitoes.

Conditions in the women's shelter began to deteriorate.

My mother was working herself to death, trying to keep the shelter sanitized. She was afraid of us getting sick. She had to go outside in the pitch dark, to get water out of a trash can at 3:30 in the morning to flush the toilets.

Though Tiana lost her most treasured material possessions—a small stereo that was a Christmas gift last year, her gospel CDs, her stuffed animals and books—she and her sisters learned to amuse themselves in other ways.

At one point before we went to sleep we stretched out on top of my PawPaw's car and because there were no lights you could see all the stars. We saw the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper and the Milky Way. It was awesome!

Assistance finally arrived, by air.

SEPT. 2: Helicopters are dropping ice and water. People [are] shoving their kids under the blades, trying to get at the ice. The guard hollered that if they didn't stop there would be no more drops. So they didn't come back again.

Finally, the family accepted a ride to a refugee center set up at a Baptist church in Robertsdale. Conditions are comfortable there: hot food, showers and a private room, since Tiana was showing signs of pinkeye.

We're in quarantine until Monday. It's hard to see all the other kids running and playing and having fun, and I can't. But I'm thankful to God just to be here. This is a very good place. They have taked such good care of us.

Separated from Her Preemies for a Week
YASHICA, YAKIERRA AND YASMINE BLACKSTONE

Tim Beasley, the supervisor of a team of flight nurses at Medical City Children's hospital in Dallas, got the call on Aug. 30: Chopper into New Orleans and airlift the premature babies out of Touro Infirmary. "The hospital was flooded—no power, no water," says Beasley. "Those babies needed out."

Boarding a small helicopter in Lafayette, La., Beasley, 46, and fellow flight nurse David Campbell, 33, circled the lower Garden District infirmary and saw nurses standing on the rooftop of the hospital cradling babies. Their seven tiny passengers, who weighed from 2½ to 5 lbs., nestled two or three to a plastic bassinet to fit into the chopper's tight quarters. All were breathing on their own, but a nurse warned that they might "change colors on you"—turn blue unless stimulated to breathe with, say, a tap on the foot.

As the babies made the harrowing 500-mile trip, their parents had little idea of their children's fate. Yashica Blackstone, 26, the mother of twin girls Yakierra and Yasmine, who had been born on Aug. 25 at 34 weeks (about six weeks premature), had been discharged from the hospital on Aug. 28. "I thought since the storm was coming maybe they'd let me stay, but the doctor said I had to leave," says Blackstone, an after-school tutor. Instead, she rode out the hurricane in her mother and stepfather's New Orleans house and was rescued in a boat by the Coast Guard three days later. She caught a bus with her older son Jirron Jr., 3, to the Astrodome in Houston and learned that her children's father, her fiancé Jirron Minor Sr., was in Oklahoma. And the babies? "I didn't know where they were."

A friend found the answer on the Internet. When Blackstone reached Medical City Children's, she learned the babies were healthy and ready to be released. (All of the babies survived; staffers are working to contact all their parents.) Reunited Sept. 4, Blackstone covered the twins with kisses. "It was just a relief," she says, adding that she was going to take them to Oklahoma soon to join her fiancé. She treated Beasley and Campbell, meanwhile, to big hugs: "They're heroes to me."

Forced to Leave One Child Behind While Giving Birth to Another
ROSEZINA JEFFERSON

Rosezina Jefferson welcomed a new son, Keith, into the world at 4 a.m. on Aug. 31, weighing 8 lbs., 2 oz. But instead of being able to revel in her baby's first moments of life, Jefferson, 26, was consumed with worry about Ashton—the 5-year-old son she had been forced to leave behind in the rapidly rising waters of New Orleans the day before.

With Rosezina's Sept. 2 due date fast approaching, she and Ashton had left their apartment Sun., Aug. 28, to stay with her friend and Ashton's godmother, Monique Moses, who had agreed to take care of the boy when the time came for Rosezina to give birth. Then Katrina hit. The muddy water had nearly reached the second floor of Moses's two-floor apartment Tuesday morning when Jefferson had her first contraction. Since neither Moses nor Ashton could swim, Jefferson, battling panic and quickening pain, could think of only one way to get help fast: She plunged into the murky flood-waters and swam toward a bridge three blocks away, where she had heard the Coast Guard was picking people up.

Ashton watched his mother as she stepped off a fire-escape ladder—a memory that would haunt her as she swam for safety. "He was screaming, 'Mama, come back,' " Jefferson says. "But I had to keep going." After half an hour, just shy of the Coast Guard's temporary outpost, she was airlifted to dry ground and taken by ambulance to Woman's Hospital in Baton Rouge. There, in the throes of labor, she wondered if her son was alive: "I was watching the news and saw how bad it was. I was really scared."

Three agonizing days passed before Jefferson got word: Ashton and Moses were safe at the Judson Baptist Church shelter in Walker, La., 20 miles north of Baton Rouge. On Saturday the family was reunited, and Jefferson gave Ashton an extra-tight hug. "I asked him, did he have faith I'd find him?" Jefferson says. "He just held my hand and smiled."

Motherless in West Virginia
EMANI SCOTT

For a 13-year-old stranded far from her mother and home in New Orleans, Emani Scott is remarkably calm and collected. "She's an amazing little girl," says West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, who met Scott when she stepped off a plane full of evacuees who are being housed at the Camp Dawson National Guard training facility. "She walked straight up to me and asked, 'How are your schools?' "

All of the girl's possessions are gone, save for some clothes and a portable CD player that she carried from her family's house near the French Quarter, but material goods aren't on Emani's mind. She last saw her mother, Jerilynn, 29, in the chaos outside the Convention Center—where the family had spent several miserable nights—as evacuees were boarding helicopters to the New Orleans airport. "They were taking women with babies first," says Emani. Her mom, carrying her 10-month old sister Jermani, was swept on ahead. "She said, 'I'll see you at the airport. Take care of your little brother and your grandma,' " recalls Emani, who was left behind with her 63-year-old grandmother, also named Jerilynn, and her younger brother Emanuel. When the three finally arrived at the airport to board a plane for West Virginia later that day, there was no sign of Emani's mother.

Today, Emani and her new friends at Camp Dawson spend their time on the computer, searching for her missing mother and baby sister. The Red Cross has so far not located them, but Emani is confident they will. "We cried and prayed. I thought they'd find my mama and bring her to West Virginia," says Emani. "When she didn't show up and we didn't hear anything, we got more worried. But I know in my heart she is okay."

With that same confidence, she looks forward to getting back to school—"I don't want to fall behind. I want a good education," she says—and has already made a decision about her future: She wants to stay in West Virginia. "I really like it here," she says. "I want a house on a hill."