In the days following the flooding after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, approximately 1.5 million people throughout the Gulf Coast were displaced from their homes, including 163,000 children. Some of those were young people who became separated from their siblings and parents at the Superdome and convention center in New Orleans, as buses came to evacuate people. In rare but documented cases, families torn apart in the chaos of transporting people to cities hundreds and thousands of miles away from the Gulf Coast were not reunited for months after the storm.
Now, five years later, The Children’s Health Fund and The Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University have studied some of those children who were displaced by the floodwaters and the results paint a sobering picture.
Among the key findings:
- 60 percent of children uprooted from their homes after Katrina either have serious emotional disorders, behavioral issues and/or are experiencing significant housing instability. According to the study, this represents about 20,000 children.
- Among those parents who thought their children needed professional help, slightly more than half did not receive it. The overwhelming reason cited for this was a lack of money and/or a lack of available resources.
But one community, St. Bernard Parish just outside New Orleans, worked hard to make sure its children would get through the turmoil that followed Katrina. The school board brought on a team of mental health providers, including psychiatrists and clinical social workers, available to every student from kindergarten through 12th grade — Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center provided the staff. So when kids returned in the months and years after the storm, they had a trained medical professional to talk to. Family counseling was also provided, and school officials reinforced the message that there was no stigma in seeking out counseling. That support is still available today.
As part of our reporting marking the anniversary of Katrina, the online NewsHour spoke to six students from Chalmette High who were displaced after storm. At the time, they were all about 11 years old. Today, at 16 and 17 years old, they are young adults.
Their homes were all underwater for weeks. Their families were separated, some by choice, some by circumstance. Today, five years later, they’re doing just fine. But they’ve had to grow up very fast.
Daniel Flattman and his dad stayed behind on Aug. 29, 2005, to keep an eye on their home. They watched with alarm as the flood waters came in. They fled to the roof of their garage where they pitched a tent and stayed for two days.
A neighbor of theirs had a boat. They heard that an elderly man in the area was stranded with his two dogs, so they went there and rescued him.
“He had one of those old fashioned houses, like a shotgun house,” Daniel said. “It had like a really high pitched roof that had one of those wood windows in it and we had to bust it out and the guy was cut on his hand really bad,” he remembered.
Brooke Steele was also 11 years old when Katrina hit. The boys and men in her family stayed behind but she and the women piled into the family car and evacuated to Arkansas. Brooke’s mom told the little ones they were going on a short vacation.
Rhett and Ruston Pritchard and their family wound up in a shelter in a school gym somewhere in Mississippi. They’re not sure where it was — they just remember they were “scared” and “heard a bunch of rumors” that a friend of theirs had died.
Sophie Boudreaux and her younger brother, who has Down Syndrome, were separated from their mother in the months after the flooding. What she remembers most from the days after Katrina was watching the news on television and not seeing or hearing ANYTHING about St. Bernard.
“They were showing only shots of New Orleans and they never showed any shots of St. Bernard,” she said.
So it was days before she knew the entire parish was underwater and that her mother, who stayed behind, was alive and well. Sophie and her brother spent months living with their grandparents after the storm, only seeing their mom every couple of weeks. Even today, Sophie says, her younger brother doesn’t want to let his mother out of his sight when they visit their grandparents.
Melanie Benit and her family went to Brookhaven, Miss. She and her mom stayed for a year while her dad went back and lived in a FEMA trailer and tried to start repairs on their flood-damaged home.
The gravity of all the flooding didn’t really hit her until she came back and saw that rescuers had had to kick through her bedroom door to make sure no one had died or was stranded in her house.
All six of the teenagers are doing well five years after all of this. Daniel hopes to be an actor one day — the rest say they’re still pondering their futures.
They all said the oil spill this summer was upsetting. And they all said their parents have been just as traumatized by the past few years as they have.
Daniel seemed to sum the six up this way: “We don’t let stuff get to us,” he said. “We’ve all been through it, we all know what it is. I think the best way to get through anything is just to keep going.”
That’s just what they did — but they had a lot of help. Thousands of other children surveyed in the Children’s Health Fund study weren’t so fortunate.