"I learned a lot from the hurricane," said Perez, a staff member of The Tattoo, an online student publication that also appears periodically in The Bristol Press. "I learned determination, dedication and sacrifice. Iím not glad it happened, but Iím glad for what it did for me."
Perez, a high school senior from St. Bernard Parish, La., won the forumís top award, the Professor Mel Williams Award for an outstanding writer, for her ongoing journals in The Tattoo about her experience with the hurricane.
Now living with her parents in a cramped FEMA trailer -- which she described as "a little poor manís dollhouse" -- Perez flew from New Orleans with her parents to American International College in Springfield to accept her award and recount her experiences to fellow teen journalists.
An appreciative New York reader picked up the tab for the Perez family to make the trip.
"I was able to fly in a plane for the first time and see a snow flurry," Perez said.
Keeley Conte, a senior at Agawam High School in Agawam, said meeting Perez "made us realize how tough it is" to live through a hurricane like Katrina.
"It was an amazing story," said Bryan Roy, an Agawam junior. "Itís real nice to hear the perspective from a teenís point of view."
Perez said she appreciated the kindness of strangers who sent her basic necessities like toothbrushes and soap -- which she said she wonít take for granted again -- as well as those who sent clothes and e-mails filled with comforting words.
"That was the biggest blessing from the hurricane," Perez said.
In her talk, Perez spoke about the helpless residents of a nursing home in her town who drowned in their beds because the nursing home administrators did not evacuate them, about seeing the devastation the storm wreaked on her town and on her own home.
"Iím here representing all the people from the state," Perez said.
Before the hurricane, Perez said, she took so much for granted. She was editor-in-chief of her schoolís literary magazine, secretary of the National Honor Society and a flute player active in several different bands.
"Life was pretty good," Perez said.
It wasnít until after a Friday-night football game before the storm hit that she first heard the name "Katrina," said Perez.
"It was funny the way it was said. It wasnít with dread or awe or respect. It was just a name," she said. "It wasnít a big deal. It was just a storm that was going to pass us by."
She recalled tossing her important things -- including a stuffed monkey -- into a big plastic tub as she and her parents prepared to flee the oncoming storm.
"When you evacuate, itís not a neat and clean thing," Perez said. "Youíre just scrambling to get everything ready."
They left in the dark of night, she said, recalling streetlights, shop lights and the headlights of others who, like her family, were running from the storm.
Safe in a faraway hotel room, Perez said, she and her extended family waited for the storm, watching the news and second-guessing themselves.
"There was a lot of uncertainty. Then all you could do was sit and watch the news," Perez said. "You felt powerless."
When they heard from a neighbor whoíd stayed behind that heíd had to hack a hole in his roof to escape the rising floodwaters and climb on top of it to wait for help, all hope for their own home vanished, Perez said.
When a hurricane sends water, the student said, there is no gradual seeping. Itís violent, she said.
"Waters rush in. They break doors. They break walls," she said.
Perez said she came upon an online invitation to teens impacted by the hurricane to write for The Tattoo and took advantage of the opportunity.
Katrina stole her childhood mementos and the home and life Perez knew.
"This is where I scribbled on the walls when I was little. This is where I took my first steps," Perez said. "All thatís gone. I grew up, partly by choice, partly because of the Katrina storm."
She said her family is planning to build a new house on new land in her hometown.
"Weíre going to take the risk," Perez said.