Four weeks after Hurricane Ivan slammed the Panhandle, 92,000 students in two counties have returned to school.
GULF BREEZE - Forced out of their Florida Panhandle home by Hurricane Ivan, Monette Hodges and her family now live 90 minutes away in Mobile, Ala. - the closest place they could find.
But that didn't stop her from getting her three children to school Monday, the first day back in four weeks for 92,000 students in two counties, Escambia and Santa Rosa, hardest hit by the storm. They are the last schools in Florida to reopen after a series of four hurricanes hit the state.
Hodges, a dance teacher whose home on Pensacola Beach, just south of Gulf Breeze, was wiped out by Ivan, rejected the idea of putting 15-year-old Lacie, 8-year-old Cate and 5-year-old Patrick in Alabama schools.
"I just don't want to uproot them," she said after dropping Lacie at her high school and the two youngest children at Gulf Breeze United Methodist Church, the temporary home of Pensacola Beach Elementary School.
She and other parents were looking forward to restoring some normalcy to their children's lives. Utilities have not yet been restored to the barrier island community where many homes were destroyed or severely damaged. Ivan's storm surge swept over the western end of Santa Rosa Island, a narrow spit of sand that extends about 50 miles from Pensacola eastward to Destin.
Pensacola Beach Elementary, a charter school, is one of two Escambia County schools that have had to move. Repairs also have not been completed at Longleaf Elementary, so students from there are attending double sessions at Bellview Elementary in Pensacola.
Florida Education Commissioner John Winn marked the reopening by helping unload a truck filled with donated school supplies at Bellview and Workman Middle School, also in Pensacola.
The return has been particularly difficult in Bagdad, a small Santa Rosa County community about 10 miles northeast of Pensacola, where two second-graders were killed in the past month.
"I'm sure parents have been dealing with it at home with their children," Bagdad Elementary principal Will Nowling said.
Roxanne DeLoach, 7, was crushed when a tree fell on her house as Ivan battered the Panhandle on Sept. 16. Robert Qualls, 8, died Sept. 24 in a house fire unrelated to the hurricane, said state fire marshal's Lt. Kevin Fiedor.
The Santa Rosa school district sent a crisis team to the school Monday to counsel students.
Pensacola Beach pupils and teachers may be unable to get back into their building until after spring break at the earliest, principal Jeff Castleberry said.
"I know that most of our families have relocated; we wanted to offer them a home base," McLauren said, noting that the temporary classrooms at Gulf Breeze United Methodist Church have been made to look as similar as possible to those in the damaged building.
Although many teachers and staff members in the two districts have had to deal with personal losses, Bagdad Elementary's Nowling said he expected staffers and teachers to be focused. "We all know what our job is," he said.