For Many of Katrina's Young Victims, The Scars Are More Than Skin Deep

By Julia Cass
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 13, 2006

NEW ORLEANS -- This year's hurricane season has just begun, and already it is producing a new surge of anxiety in Gulf Coast children.

Children at a day-care center in Gautier, Miss., ask their caregivers every day: "Did you watch the Weather Channel? What does the Weather Channel say?" In a New Orleans trailer park, a 12-year-old boy who spent five days outside the convention center after Hurricane Katrina and saw a woman in a wheelchair slowly die pleads with his mother to buy a car so they can escape the next big one. An 8-year-old girl is convinced that another hurricane will hit New Orleans -- she is even sure it will be on June 15 and a Category 8 (a rating that doesn't exist).

Ten months after Katrina, its emotional effect on children is proving to be long and lasting. Two studies of children affected by the hurricane have found high rates of depression, anxiety, behavioral problems and post-traumatic stress disorder.

A Louisiana State University mental health screening of nearly 5,000 children in schools and temporary housing in the state found that 96 percent saw hurricane damage to their homes or neighborhoods, 22 percent had relatives or friends who were injured, 14 percent had relatives or friends who died, and 35 percent lost pets. Thirty-four percent were separated from their primary caregivers at some point; 9 percent still are.

The concern for the Katrina children is not just the immediate trauma from the storm, but that so much of their lives remains disrupted.

A report prepared for Congress last November estimated that 189,000 children were dislocated by Katrina; about 110,000 still do not live where they did nine months ago. Some children have attended as many as nine schools since August. Those who have returned to school in New Orleans often do not attend the same schools with the same students or teachers as before.

"Disasters like Oklahoma City and 9/11 were time-limited," said Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness and president of the Children's Health Fund, an advocacy group and care provider for medically underserved children. "The children who were affected psychologically could go to a place of normalcy. The difference here is not only the scope of devastation but the prolonged dislocation with an uncertain timeline. The trauma has not yet ended."

Justyn Green, 12, and his brother Jaleel, 8, spent six days at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans with their mother and father -- hot, hungry, thirsty, dirty and frightened. They heard gunfire and saw dead people. They got out at one point, only to be forced to return when police in a nearby town turned away thousands of evacuees at gunpoint. When they finally boarded a bus to leave -- after enduring a line so long they could barely stand -- they thought the horror was over, but it wasn't. The bus flipped over near Opelousas, and their father was killed.

The boys "didn't say a word" at the Superdome, said their mother, Joy Green. "They looked so lost and scared. There was no security at all. You were on your own."

The boys still don't talk much. In their ranch-style brick home in Algiers, which in the end suffered no storm damage, they sit at the kitchen table and draw pictures. They have been drawing for months, encouraged by a psychiatrist as a way to express themselves and describe their experiences.

"At first, they drew a lot of coffins," said the psychiatrist, Barbara Hamm. "Now they draw the Dome and men with guns." She and their mother attribute their obsession with guns and what they call "Army men" to having guns pointed at them and to their perception of the military men in the Superdome as menacing rather than protective.

The boys' 17-year-old brother, James, who was named after their father, evacuated to Arkansas with friends. Although he didn't experience the horrors of the Superdome, he has dropped out of school and won't go for counseling with his mother and siblings. "He won't talk about it, so I'm not sure what's going on with him," Joy Green said. "He did say one time that he shouldn't have told us to evacuate. He said, 'If I hadn't have told you to go, Daddy would still be alive.' "

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