New Orleans In the end, like the storm before it, all the hubbub and the glare of the media receded, and the girls of Cabrini High School just danced.
Two hundred teenagers - all Hurricane Katrina victims - donned donated gowns, shoes and rhinestones Friday night to arrive at their prom, like a herd of swans, at a reception hall called Magnolia Plantation not far from downtown.
The theme was "Let the Good Times Roll," but, this being New Orleans, it was written in French on their prom T-shirts (Laissez Les Bons Temps Roulez).
They might have spent the last months living in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer or sleeping on a friend's trundle bed far away from family, but this night, at least, they could be ordinary teenagers with a prom like everybody else's. That meant happy shrieks and hugs, candlelight and white tablecloths, music pouring from a disc jockey's booth, a long line at the photo booth, silver sandals that pinched and a date who might not have agreed to slow dance.
"I've been through so much and had to overcome a lot," said Kristin Ancar, a senior who has shared her home with two displaced classmates for the past seven months. "Putting on this dress made everything perfect."
She pulled up the skirt of her hot-pink strapless gown. It rustled.
"I couldn't ask for anything more," she said, her voice catching.
"This is, like, the last dance we'll ever have," said Blake DeLarge, whose home was flooded in the August storm. "I feel good. I can't believe someone from Washington touched these dresses and gave them to all of us. You know, people really do care."
The "someone from Washington" - Marisa West, the Beltsville, Md., teenager whose dress drive collected 2,800 gowns - was also at the prom, invited as guest of honor.
After Katrina, the students at Cabrini - an all-girls Catholic school in the hard-hit Mid-City section of New Orleans - didn't know whether they'd be able to have a prom at all, much less buy a fancy dress.
But West organized a dress drive. West's campaign succeeded beyond anyone's expectations, getting national attention and enough dresses to outfit students from 10 ravaged schools, plus accessories.
Greeting guests at the prom, Cabrini president Ardley Hanemann said, "It really is the jewel of their senior year."
Next to him, a teacher asked Lauren Pilie to twirl in her white strapless gown.
"This is a fantasy for them," Hanemann continued. "They've got gorgeous dresses; their dates are in tuxedos. For this one night, they're leaving behind their trailers, their gutted homes."
"The energy level is through the roof," said West, who will attend Harvard University this fall.
West, who wore a red strapless gown donated by a bridal shop in Annapolis, Md., said she was inspired to see all the dresses she had helped pack come to life on the Cabrini students - including the pink one she had tried on and nicknamed the "Cupcake Dress."
Everybody wanted to wear that dress, so a winner had to be chosen by lottery. The lucky girl was Amy Theriot, whose grandmother suffered a heart attack and died after learning her house was swept away by Katrina.
"For once in my entire life, I feel pretty," Theriot said, taking a break from the dance floor. She was wearing a borrowed wedding tiara. "I've been teased about my looks my entire life, so tonight, I just feel so special. It's overwhelming. This is awesome."
Katrina is an omnipresent shadow in the lives of these students, especially for the several who returned to the city to finish senior year when Cabrini reopened Nov. 8, leaving parents and siblings behind in Texas and other cities in Louisiana.
Cabrini seniors DeLarge and Ryan LeFrere have been staying at Ancar's house since November. They all got ready there together, curling their brown hair into loopy, lavish curls. A pot of gumbo bubbled on the stove.
"It's been hard, but this has brought us all closer together," DeLarge said.