Incoming high school seniors of the class of Hurricane Katrina

LONG BEACH -- When Gage Weeks and his family returned home after Hurricane Katrina, they lived in a FEMA trailer in his best friend's backyard.

In fact, five families lived in trailers in that backyard. They referred to it as Camp Carrubba.

That was Weeks' freshman year at Long Beach High, a tough time for any adolescent. But these students had just begun high school when the biggest natural disaster ever to hit the U.S. came roaring in.

Some of their friends moved away; their homes and schools were damaged or destroyed and learning conditions were less than desirable.

Many people referred to the Class of 2006 as the Class of Katrina, but the students who were freshmen that year also deserve the designation. They not only survived the storm, but they have prospered.

Wednesday was the first day of class for many districts in South Mississippi; others go back today. Repairs are complete, and most schools have been rebuilt, but students said they can't imagine what high school would have been like if Katrina hadn't hit.

"I have some of my happiest memories, and I also have some of my saddest from those times," said Weeks, now a senior at Long Beach High. "It gives you an interesting perspective being a child of Katrina."

Katie Cook, a classmate of Weeks', remembered seeing him the first day of school after Katrina.

"We hugged; we cried, and then we went to English class," she said.

Paige Necaise and William Shaw, both seniors at Pass Christian High, also returned to school a few weeks after Katrina hit. Necaise's home in Henderson Point was destroyed, and Shaw's home was heavily damaged.

"We definitely didn't have the freshman experience we should have," Necaise said. "We went to classes in trailers and ate lunch on the bleachers."

But both said they became closer to their classmates after the storm and had a better appreciation for the volunteers who traveled thousands of miles to help the Coast recover.

"When we first started high school, I didn't really want to talk to people," Shaw said. "But after the storm hit I wanted to get involved more and help people out as much as I could."

The students said after the storm they learned to get joy from the little things life brings, such as spending time with friends and going to Sonic after school.

"I think we appreciate things a lot more," Cook said. "When football season started (in 2005), I felt a lot more spirit. As a class we've had to be a lot more creative. We were happy just to hang out at someone's house or go to the beach or have bonfires."

And while some might consider this a strange notion, the students said they're almost grateful for the storm. Not for the death and destruction it caused, but for the lessons they learned from Katrina.

"It was tough, but in a way, I'm kind of glad it happened," Necaise said. "I made a lot of new friends, and we moved away from the water."

Weeks learned another lesson.

"I have a lot more respect for things," he said. "It's taught me that nothing's permanent. It was three years ago, but it stays with us every day."