Monday, October 11, 2004

GULF BREEZE, Fla. (AP) — Forced out of their Florida Panhandle home by Hurricane Ivan, Monette Hodges and her family now live 90 minutes away in Mobile, Ala.

But instead of putting her three children in school there, Mrs. Hodges managed to get them back to Florida yesterday in time for the first day of school in four weeks for 92,000 students in two of the hardest-hit counties.

“I just don’t want to uproot them,” Mrs. Hodges said after dropping 15-year-old Lacie at her high school and 8-year-old Cate and 5-year-old Patrick at Methodist Lifeguard Center, the temporary home of Pensacola Beach Elementary School.

On Santa Rosa Island, where many houses were destroyed and utilities have not been restored, Mrs. Hodges and other parents were looking forward to restoring some normalcy to their children’s lives.

“They didn’t want to come back [to school], but I think it will be good for them to be able to talk to the other kids, their friends, and see how they did and kind of get some comfort from them,” said Karen Crockford, who brought her children, William, 7, and Maylee, 11, from nearby Pensacola, where they are staying until their home can be repaired.

The schools in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties were the last to reopen after the state was slammed by four hurricanes.

The return has been particularly difficult in Bagdad, a small town about 10 miles northeast of Pensacola, where two second-graders were killed during the storm and its aftermath. Roxanne DeLoach, 7, was crushed when a tree fell on her house, and 8-year-old Robert Qualls died in a house fire unconnected to the hurricane.

The school district dispatched a crisis team to the school yesterday to help counsel students.

“It’s a tragic event for the entire area. I’ve never seen anything like this,” Bagdad Elementary Principal Will Nowling said.

Joy McLauren, the counselor at Pensacola Beach Elementary, handed out crisis-intervention packets to teachers and parents to help identify children who might be suffering from stress. Nearly all of the school’s children have been displaced from their homes.

The school is one of two in Escambia County that had to set up quarters elsewhere. Students at Longleaf Elementary are attending a school in Pensacola.

The Pensacola Beach Elementary building was so damaged when Ivan swept over Santa Rosa Island that students might be unable to return until after spring break, Principal Jeff Castleberry said.

“I know that most of our families have relocated. We wanted to offer them a home base,” Miss McLauren said, noting that temporary classrooms have been made to look as close as possible to those in the damaged building. The Army Corps of Engineers is installing four portable classrooms.

The charter school will lose some funding because about 20 of its 129 students will not be returning until their homes are repaired or rebuilt, Mr. Castleberry said.

“Some have moved to California, Mississippi — they’re scattered all over,” he said.

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