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Class of Katrina: 'Normal' prom is special for Mississippi seniors

Monday, March 27, 2006

PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. -- Wearing a canary yellow strapless evening gown, Jessica Jenkins walked across the remains of her home, raising her petticoat to keep it out of the red clay.

Prom season holds a special importance for Jenkins and other Gulf Coast students whose last year of high school was defined by Hurricane Katrina.

"The littlest things get to you now," said Jenkins, who was named the prom queen Saturday. "Things that you would never have thought would bother you before the storm, bother you now."

Next to the site of her old home, where their new house is under construction, Jenkins and older sister Leah share a trailer supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Her parents and younger sister Brett live in an adjacent trailer. At one time, they all shared one trailer, with a white maltese and golden-haired poodle.

"You have a lot of rough mornings trying to get ready in a FEMA trailer," she said.

Before Saturday's prom, she had to apply her makeup in the trailer's dim lighting while a bulldozer cleared debris from a nearby lot.

She and her classmates from Pass Christian High have been attending school in portable classrooms set up on the campus of the local elementary school. Enrollment was down from 600 students last year to 420.

Other senior classes from Pass Christian have had their proms at a venue in downtown Gulfport but it, too, was damaged by the storm, so Saturday's party for the Class of 2006 was moved to the Orange Grove Community Center off scenic U.S. 49, next to the Kangaroo Gas Station.

'It's just sweet'

Senior Ryan Spear was shocked the school could hold a prom at all, much less have it ready on time.

"It isn't bittersweet. It's just sweet," fellow senior Heidi Knight said. "Having one just makes you feel normal."

They got some assistance from far away, as six students from Pennsylvania's State College High School came to help them decorate and others in the central Pennsylvania town donated 150 formal dresses for the Pass Christian seniors.

"I figured that most people wouldn't think of a prom for hurricane survivors, but it is something important to high school students," said Jony Rommel, a State College High student who put on a performing arts show to help raise money for Pass Christian's big night.

In November, another group of Pennsylvania students, from Lampeter-Strasburg High School in Lancaster, donated money and supplies for an elaborate homecoming gala for Pass Christian and Long Beach high schools.

Katrina's effects extend into the post-high school plans of some students. Spear will attend a community college in Tennessee, where his family evacuated during the hurricane. Jenkins has decided she will attend Mississippi Community College, where she expects to play softball.

"I was going to go off farther to a university but now I'm just going to go to a junior college just to stay closer to home," she said.


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