In Biloxi, Miss., Cozy Higginbotham eagerly began the school year as first vice president of the North Bay Elementary School PTO, juggling that role along with planning for her wedding. Then Hurricane Katrina hit, and all plans changed—instantly.

"Unfortunately, our president lived in a neighborhood where her house was nothing but a slab," Higginbotham says. "We never heard from her after the hurricane. We know she's in Texas somewhere because records were requested for her kids. I'm sure she has her hands full. I felt it was my place to step up."

Higginbotham assumed the presidency under difficult circumstances: Her own home sustained $45,000 worth of damage, she lost her job at a tuxedo sales and rental store, and then she relocated her wedding to Atlanta. But she recruited relatives from out of state to fly in donations and has focused on helping restore a sense of normalcy for the school's children, including those among the 100 families displaced by the storm. Some are still living in tents.

Normal—that's a word echoed dreamily by dazed parent-group officers along the Gulf Coast in the wake of the most destructive hurricane ever to hit the United States. Schools throughout Louisiana and Mississippi and in neighboring states took in tens of thousands of students after the storm closed schools throughout the region. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 372,000 K-12 students were displaced. Texas made room for 44,000 of these students; Louisiana, 38,000; Georgia, 10,000; Mississippi, 9,000; Florida, nearly 6,000; and Alabama, 5,000. Other states have responded, as well.

While the generous outpouring of donations from across the country has eased the immediate financial burden for schools and their parent groups as they try to meet the needs of all these shifted students, the chaos wrought by the storm has left many parent leaders struggling to reorganize as they work to meet unanticipated needs.

At North Bay, one of the PTO's first orders of business was to cancel all fundraisers. "We're not asking any parent for any money because everybody needs money to take care of themselves," Higginbotham says.

The North Bay Night Out, a free evening of games usually held in October, was postponed until spring. The annual Christmas gift sale, which allows kids to shop for siblings, was still scheduled but was scaled back. All items were to be priced at a nickel or a dime, with the PTO picking up the rest of the cost. And the group is working with other schools that have adopted North Bay and are buying gifts, including winter clothes, for the 30 families with the greatest needs.

Mostly, the PTO is functioning as a go-between, identifying needs of the school families and then seeking to fill them through networking. The officers meet about twice a month and keep in close contact, fielding calls such as a recent request for five pillows and five blankets. "My priority is to help these families that have nothing get stuff and to be supportive," Higginbotham says. "The kids are resilient. They bounce back quicker than some of the adults."

Reorganizing and Rebuilding

Like North Bay, the parent group at Abney Elementary School in Slidell, La., lost its president, who relocated to Colorado in the aftermath of Katrina. Another officer stepped into that role with help from parents like Karen Falanga, the PTA parliamentarian and a kindergarten teacher at the school. While Abney took in a few students from nearby areas, the flooded school also lost 60 percent of its 1,000 students to relocation, along with 20 of its classrooms and most of its teaching materials, Falanga says.

Once the school was able to reopen—on Oct. 3, nearly five weeks after the storm—one of the PTA's first tasks was to distribute spirit shirts to children as a substitute for lost uniforms. Next up was holding a brief open house to allow parents a chance to view the damage to the school—the stripped-out sheetrock and shelving, the patchwork tile repairs—and to introduce the board. The new president told the group, "We're just like you—reorganizing and rebuilding."

Events like Grandparents Day and a fun run were canceled, as was an incentive for teachers to join the PTA. Instead, the PTA recruited parents to come in and help unload trucks bringing donated supplies from around the country. And there were two pressing orders of business: voting on buying a new refrigerator for the school and making up treat bags for the fall festival, which proceeded as planned except that it was opened to all the students rather than just the kindergartners. The PTA is also working on printing a scaled-back version of its newsletter. And it has had to recreate its bylaws and budget, which were lost in the flood.

"It's So Overwhelming"

The situation is more dire at Central Elementary in Pascagoula, Miss., where PTO President LaTrenia Taylor is plugging along solo as the school tries to regain its footing. Many of its 250 students, displaced by the hurricane, are living in tents and trailers and on cruise ships. In addition, Central took in another 150 students, most from a nearby school. "Our whole goal is to make everything as close to normal as possible and not to make a separation between those originally not part of the school and those that are," Taylor says. She borrows friends' cars to get to the school because the hurricane destroyed hers. "It's so overwhelming. We try not to focus on the negative part. We're just trying to get back into the transition of school as an outlet where kids can have fun."

Taylor says the school's greatest need right now is dealing with the contributions that have arrived. "The halls are lined with donations," she says. "We have no shelving or storage space for anything, no place to put them up. One of the biggest issues is to get shelves and storage boxes in." Another pressing need that the PTO will probably take up when it resumes meeting in January is a replacement for the playground destroyed by the hurricane.

Taylor is also sensitive to the needs of stressed teachers, and working as a one-man band on behalf of the PTO, she set up a lunch for them in the teachers' lounge. As for the year that might have been, Taylor says, "Right about now, we were supposed to have a fall festival that we did not get to do. There are so many things. We just need to build our PTO back up. It seems like everything we thought about doing is on the back burner."

Doing the Right Thing

One of the schools not directly affected by the storm's fury that has opened its door to evacuees is St. Rita Catholic School in Dallas. The school originally took in 22 students; of that group, 15 remain. Meeting the needs of these newcomers presented a unique opportunity for the St. Rita Parents Club to teach its students about social justice, which had already been chosen as this year's theme for the school.

"Our focus was on doing the right thing and being compassionate to people in less fortunate situations," says Parents Club President Linda Baker. Originally, the students were set to assist sister parishes in Dallas and in Honduras. But Hurricane Katrina redirected their existing resources and plans. The group donated $1,000 from its budget that had been allocated to scholarships and promotions.

The newcomers committee of the parent group, which matches middle school students with new kindergartners as prayer buddies and mentors, hooked up the evacuated students, as well. Parents donated uniforms, toys, and books and helped make room in such group activities as soccer teams. "It brought home our theme that if you have, you should give," Baker says. "It taught us a lot, how life can be turned upside down in less than 24 hours. It was trying but enriching."