Rebuilding Lives in Houston
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LEE HOCHBERG: There was comfort food at breakfast for thousands who’ve had little comfort since the New Orleans disaster: Pancakes and grits for the estimated 300 children at the makeshift shelter at Houston’s convention center. Almost 250,000 Louisiana evacuees have come to Texas. As of yesterday, 8,000 were spread among three major shelters in Houston. Thousands lined up to begin processing disaster claims, apply for food stamps, enroll in school and look for new jobs.
MAN: They told us they were going to send all of us to the same place.
LEE HOCHBERG: But many are unable to move forward. Hundreds, maybe thousands here, still don’t know where their loved ones are. Children can’t find their parents; parents can’t find their children.
WILBERT SMITH: They just disappeared, it seemed like to me. I don’t know where they are. And I’m worried sick. I have two sons, that’s all I have.
LEE HOCHBERG: Wilbert Smith was separated from fifteen-year-old Wilbert, Jr. and ten-year-old Winton. The children were going to evacuate New Orleans with their mother and go to Dallas. Smith stayed behind to aid in the rescue. He hasn’t heard from them since.
WILBERT SMITH: I haven’t stopped. Every day I’m looking, looking, looking. Just exhausting myself. That’s what I do all day, looking for my two kids.
LEE HOCHBERG: Evacuees examine improvised message boards. As we walked the shelter, some begged us to help them find their children. Wealthy Rose was looking for her 11-year-old grandson, Joel.
WEALTHY ROSE: I hope he’s still alive. I hope I’ve been doing all I can. Put it in the computer and everything. I just don’t know what to do right now.
WILBERT SMITH: They’re both athletes, man, I tell you, and they’re good. And I got to see his first football game before the storm.
LEE HOCHBERG: Smith told us about his boys as we headed to the shelter’s computer center. Volunteers there try to match the names of the missing with those found on various Web sites.
WILBERT SMITH: Start searching, start searching. That’s what I’m doing. I’m not going to stop until I find them.
LEE HOCHBERG: As on every other day this week, the search turned up nothing.
SPOKESMAN: The only thing I can say is to keep trying back.
WILBERT SMITH: Try again?
LEE HOCHBERG: And there are the children. Almost 1,900 registered this week to attend public school in Houston. The city has reopened two closed elementary schools and hired scores of teachers, some from Louisiana. But many students still have the hurricane’s real-life lessons on their mind. Nine-year-old Edrianne Young:
EDRIANNE YOUNG: It’s confusing. It’s a big mix-up. Half of my family is in Dallas. Half of them is still on rooftops. Half of them is here.
LEE HOCHBERG: Eleven-year-old Tiffany Young, no relation, worries about her Missing uncle.
TIFFANY YOUNG: He hasn’t talked to us since the hurricane came. So my grandma worry about him, and he worry about us. We ain’t never seen him yet. I’m used to seeing him all day, every day, and when he ain’t around me, it don’t feel right, it don’t.
BILL COSBY: I want all of you to remember a word. Courage, courage, courage!
LEE HOCHBERG: Amidst the confusion and fear, shelter managers tried to hearten struggling tenants. Comedian Bill Cosby visited yesterday.
BILL COSBY: You are starting a new life.
LEE HOCHBERG: And indeed, there were reminders that for some, perhaps things will get better.
SPOKESPERSON: Over a week, she’s been without her kids, with no word.
LEE HOCHBERG: Hermelda James was separated from her two teen-aged daughters while evacuating New Orleans Aug. 31. Left without her voice after eight stressful days, she asked shelter volunteers from the Missing Persons Association for help. “I pray a lot,” she wrote on a piece of paper. “I never prayed before.” Yesterday she got the answer she was looking for.
SPOKESMAN: Kiebaw and Aisha registered with the Red Cross Web site that they’re in Longview. So we know they’re okay. It’s just a matter of finding them. And when we find them, we’ll tell you.
LEE HOCHBERG: The National Missing Children Association says there have been an increasing number of matches in the last few days. Still up to 400 Louisiana children have not reconnected with their parents. Ten have been put in foster care amid increasing doubts that their parents will be found alive.
SPOKESMAN: Round two come up and let’s go.
LEE HOCHBERG: Despite so many concerns, the children of Houston’s shelters awoke early this morning for their first day at their new Texas schools.
JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner has more on the challenges of relocating students throughout the country.
MARGARET WARNER: And for that, I’m joined by Hank Bounds, the superintendent of education for the state of Mississippi; and Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. Welcome to you both.
Barbara Duffield, first of all, from what you’re hearing around the country, how big is the scope of this problem, how many students are now needing to be relocated in new schools?
BARBARA DUFFIELD: It’s an enormous problem and the estimates range from – it’s in the hundreds of thousands of students that are school age that are needing to be reenrolled in schools that have been displaced now that are now experiencing homelessness as a result of the hurricane.
MARGARET WARNER: Superintendent Bounds, give us a picture of the situation in Mississippi. How many children were displaced from the coastal areas and are moving north?
HANK BOUNDS: Well, we know that we have well in excess of 100,000 students that are out of school right now. We feel very good about the prospects of opening many of those schools in the coming weeks. Hopefully we’ll have all of our schools open by mid October but we also have students coming in from Louisiana; as of today we have a little over 3,000 students that have moved in.
MARGARET WARNER: And you’re saying that these students have actually enrolled now in new schools?
HANK BOUNDS: That’s accurate. About 2,000 of the students are from Louisiana and they are moving into schools all over the state of Mississippi.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Barbara Duffield, how is this supposed to work in terms enrolling students; is there some kind of national standard that school districts are supposed to follow?
BARBARA DUFFIELD: Yes there is a federal law that protects the educational rights of children who are in homeless situations and according to that federal law schools must immediately enroll these children even if they don’t have the records that are normally required and provide them support and stability in schools that they can be successful there.
MARGARET WARNER: Now First Lady Laura Bush was in Mississippi at a school today and she was saying to the parents there of some of these displaced children, you know, it’s great you brought your children here and children need to be in school. Is it the parent’s responsibility, the displaced parent’s responsibility to find the schools or is it the school’s responsibility?
BARBARA DUFFIELD: Schools have a responsibility to identify children proactively by working with the school community and by working with the outside community so there is a responsibility to do outreach and to find the families who are experiencing homelessness.
MARGARET WARNER: So Superintendent Bounds, how are you handling that in Mississippi, I know it’s very early in this process but are you going to shelters and finding the students, or are you waiting for the parents to find a local school near where they have moved?
HANK BOUNDS: We actually have teams going into shelters to register students, local school districts are doing that. We have teams from the Department doing that. We’re doing everything that we can to locate those students that are out and grandparent’s home aunts and uncles homes through the media, and the media has been very good to help us in that regard. So, you know, we’re taking on that responsibility but sometimes it’s awfully difficult to find those that aren’t in shelters. The students that are in shelters, we can take care of them and we can get them into schools but we need help finding those that are out – that are not actually in a shelter.
MARGARET WARNER: Barbara Duffield, today Laura Bush today, herself a former teacher, was saying and sort of speaking to the public, you know it’s very important to get your kids into school even if you think you’re going to move in three weeks – she said it’s important for them to have the structure – would you agree with that?
BARBARA DUFFIELD: That’s absolutely true, children need structure; they need stability; they need some sense of normalcy, particularly when everything else in their life has been turned upside down.
MARGARET WARNER: And what are the psychological — you work with homeless students all the time — what are the sort of psychological and other hurdles that they face?
BARBARA DUFFIELD: These are children who have been traumatized in a number of ways; they’ve experienced a lot of loss; they’ve lost friends, neighborhoods, maybe pets, schools; maybe they’re not in contact with their families anymore so there’s the loss that they experience. There’s deprivation, they may not be getting adequate food, other nutrition, shelter issues, and on top that have they’re moving a lot and that mobility wreaks havoc with their educational attainment and just with their social well being.
MARGARET WARNER: Superintendent Bounds, what are you seeing in Mississippi in terms of the psychological obstacles and challenges for these children?
HANK BOUNDS: One of the biggest challenges that we face — we see children that are just sort of shell-shocked. We just relocated from the coast and we have a friend that has a small child and the friend was sharing with us that the child is actually afraid to go out of the grandparents’ home, just afraid of what’s going to happen. And that’s happening all over the state.
We have the capacity to go into shelters to bring in Department of Mental Health, to bring in social services and all sorts of ways and provide counseling services. We will certainly be able to help those boys and girls that immediately enter into our schools. But we also have another real issue in terms of counseling — there are many students that are staying on the coast at homes that have been flooded four, five, six feet of water in them that are partially destroyed.
They’re living there at night. They would prefer to do that than go into a shelter and those are the students that quite frankly we’re having a very, very difficult time reaching. We have developed teams of counselors from around the state to actually take down to the coast and we’re looking right now on developing a plan to go neighborhood to neighborhood and seek those kids out and provide them with counseling services.
MARGARET WARNER: And do your schools in the undamaged areas, do they have the classroom space, do they have the teachers to absorb these new students and — if not — what are you doing about that?
HANK BOUNDS: Well, that’s a real challenge. We do have some space in some areas. Some obviously — we’re just like any other place in the country, we have schools that are already at capacity or beyond but I can tell you that FEMA ordered 400 portable classrooms. Now many of those will go to the Gulf Coast but we also ordered enough to move into those school districts where we are receiving large numbers of displaced students.
The other thing we’re doing is also working with Gulf Coast school districts to bring those teachers to classrooms where we need additional teachers so we have processes in place to take care of space issues and teaching issues.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Mr. Bounds who is paying for all of this?
HANK BOUNDS: Well, we are just finding a way to get it done. We are asking school districts from around the state to help us out by providing us with counselors. We are engaging the ministerial staffs across the state, especially in the metro area. We plan to bring in pastors, youth pastors mental health officials and train those people to go into shelters, to go into schools, to go into communities and help us deal with this enormous problem.
MARGARET WARNER: And very briefly, Ms. Duffield, ultimately in terms of the cost of relocating all of the students is the federal government ultimately responsible?
BARBARA DUFFIELD: The federal government has a tremendous responsibility to these children. It will take all sectors to make this work but the federal government does have responsibility….
MARGARET WARNER: Financially?
BARBARA DUFFIELD: Financially. There are existing programs that are working they can build on that will get us to where we need to go.
MARGARET WARNER: Barbara Duffield and Superintendent Hank Bounds of Mississippi, thank you both.