Life After the Storm: Children Who Survived Katrina Offer Lessons


NEW ORLEANS — The children upended by Hurricane Katrina have no psychological playbook for the youngsters displaced by Harvey, or those in the path of Irma, the hurricane spinning toward Florida.

In the aftermath of Harvey, more than 160 public school districts and 30 charter schools have closed in the sprawling Houston metropolitan area. Families have scrambled to higher ground, some to other cities like Dallas or San Antonio, others into shelters. Thousands of children will have to adjust on the fly, bussed for hours to new schools from makeshift housing. Texas officials are scrambling to coordinate mental health support; the state’s psychology board is issuing temporary licenses for out-of-state therapists.

In a series of interviews here in New Orleans, 12 years after Katrina’s devastating floods, young survivors, now in their early 20s, agreed only that overcoming the mental strain of displacement is like escaping the rising water itself – a matter of finding something to hold onto, one safe place or reliable person, each time you move.

Everything else is up for grabs, including the meaning of home itself. “I was so homesick I moved back here soon as I could, right after graduating high school,” Craig Jones, 22, a freelance graphic designer and musician, said in an interview near Pigeon Town, the working class neighborhood of modest homes, diners and shaded porches where he grew up. “I got here and it was the same place but not the same, if you feel what I’m saying.”

A 5th-grader when Katrina hit, he spent the intervening years on the move, living in hotel rooms, and finally settling in Houston with his family. When he moved back to New Orleans in his late teens, the streets of his childhood had a new mix of people and an undercurrent of menace he couldn’t place. He became anxious; then began having panic attacks, seemingly at random. He was home-sick, as well as homesick.

“I was walking around with my eyes bugged out,” he said. “They wanted to put me on Xanax, but I wanted no part of that.” He moved away for a time and the anxiety subsided.

Photo

A Polaroid belonging to Jordan Bridges that survived Katrina showing Mr. Bridges, second left, with his father and three brothers. “It was like every day I woke up and had to forget everything that had happened the day before,” said Mr. Bridges.

Credit
Annie Flanagan for The New York Times

Therapists and social scientists have been trying to characterize the effects of all variety of traumas for more than a century. They have found no equations, no way to predict who will be laid low, who will adjust or who will become stronger.

But they do recognize some distinctive effects of hurricanes. Unlike an earthquake or a fire, flooding from a storm like Katrina or Harvey leaves many houses and buildings still physically standing but uninhabitable, simultaneously familiar and strange, like a loved one sinking into dementia. Surveys done in the first seven years after Katrina found that the rate of diagnosable mental health problems in the New Orleans area jumped by 9 percent – a sharper spike than after other natural disasters – and the effects did not discriminate much by race or income.

“Our reading of that is that the stressors were so severe they overwhelmed the coping skills of most kids,” said Kate McLaughlin, director of the Stress and Development Lab at the University of Washington, who led the research team.

Lacey Lawrence, now 22, escaped Katrina’s waters on an air mattress, as police officers shoved away bodies with oars, and some proprietors guarded swamping businesses with shotguns. An uncle disappeared, probably drowned. A 12-year-old cousin got lost, alone, and wasn’t heard from for hours. She and her parents landed in a dry area of the city, staying with relatives.

“I was at this new school, my friends were gone, and kids would be saying things – about my old neighborhood, about my family,” Ms. Lawrence said. “I was getting into fights; real fights, violent ones. That was something I never did before, ever. But you lose everything and you don’t know how to deal with it – no one prepares you for that.”

She finished school and now teaches young children precisely those skills: how to stay safe; how to manage emotions; how to stay focused on what they can control, and adjust to what they cannot.

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