Af­ter the storm: Lessons from chil­dren who sur­vived Ka­t­rina

For kids, flood­ing is of­ten the worst of all nat­u­ral dis­as­ters be­cause it means they can’t ever truly go ‘home’ again

Toronto Star - - INSIGHT - BENE­DICT CAREY THE NEW YORK TIMES

NEW OR­LEANS— The chil­dren up­ended by Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina have no psy­cho­log­i­cal play­book for the young­sters whose lives have been scat­tered by Har­vey or Irma.

In a series of in­ter­views here, 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 neigh­bour­hood 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 fifth-grader when Ka­t­rina hit, he spent the in­ter­ven­ing years on the move, liv­ing in ho­tel rooms and fi­nally set­tling in Hous­ton with his fam­ily.

“My mom was over­whelmed. I had to get my lit­tle brother to school every day; it was like every day I woke up and had to for­get ev­ery­thing that had hap­pened the day be­fore.” JOR­DAN BRIDGES WHO WAS A FIFTH GRADER WHEN KA­T­RINA HIT

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 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.

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 per cent — 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. A12-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 neigh­bour­hood, about my fam­ily,” 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.

In the years af­ter Ka­t­rina, a pair of so­ci­ol­o­gists, Alice Fothergill and Lori Peek, made reg­u­lar trips to New Or­leans, in­ter­view­ing hun­dreds of peo­ple who had been hit hard and track­ing their lives over time, check­ing in re­peat­edly. Af­ter seven years, the pair iden­ti­fied a rough pat­tern among dis­placed chil­dren: Some had not re­gained their foot­ing, los­ing years of school­ing and later sink­ing into un­em­ploy­ment; oth­ers adapted, even thrived; and there was a third group, of young peo­ple in an un­cer­tain hold­ing pat­tern, keep­ing them­selves up­right but un­steadily, man­ag­ing lin­ger­ing ef­fects, like de­pres­sion or anx­i­ety.

Those in the first group tended to have few re­sources to start with, and lost them all. “It’s a cu­mu­la­tive vul­ner­a­bil­ity, in which for in­stance the fam­ily strug­gled be­fore the storm, then could not get out, and the child lost the frag­ile sup­ports he or she had,” said Fothergill, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Ver­mont.

Peek, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Colorado, said that those chil­dren who adapted fastest typ­i­cally had fam­ily and net­works with re­sources that held to­gether through Ka­t­rina, or ac­quired strong al­lies along the way: teach­ers, pas- tors, shel­ter work­ers who fought for help on the child’s be­half.

The third group — “fluc­tu­at­ing equi­lib­rium,” the so­ci­ol­o­gists called it — usu­ally had lost vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing but had one solid an­chor: a mother, a fa­ther, a teacher, an older sib­ling.

Fothergill and Peek pub­lished a book lay­ing out their think­ing, Chil­dren of Ka­t­rina, told through the lives of sev­eral chil­dren.

Five years later, as those chil­dren have moved into young adult­hood, it’s clear that tra­jec­to­ries are not al­ways smooth lines. Jor­dan Bridges, 29, evac­u­ated with his mother and sib­lings be­fore Ka­t­rina to a friend’s place near Wash­ing­ton. His fa­ther stayed be­hind to work. Bridges’ life in Wash­ing­ton was a fire-shower of emo­tion. “My mom was over­whelmed. I had to get my lit­tle brother to school every day; it was like every day I woke up and had to for­get ev­ery­thing that had hap­pened the day be­fore,” said Bridges, who now works for a New Or­leans so­cial jus­tice non-prof- it, and sings in a band, Melo­ma­nia. “Home­work — for­get it. Noth­ing.” Al­though “trauma” can mean many things, and is gen­er­ally con­sid­ered de­struc­tive, its de­mands can force peo­ple to learn what their abil­i­ties are and which are most use­ful when all seems lost. Stud­ies by Rox­ane Co­hen Sil­ver, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Irvine, and oth­ers have found that adults who re­port hav­ing taken no se­ri­ous hits — like, say, the death of friend, a se­ri­ous ill­ness, a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter — gen­er­ally do not score as highly on mea­sures of well­be­ing as peo­ple who have sur­vived trau­matic events. It is peo­ple who have been through at least two trau­mas, and less than six, who score high­est.

Af­ter re­turn­ing to Louisiana, Bridges said he got blind­sided again, this time in Ba­ton Rouge, while he was study­ing for a de­gree in bi­ol­ogy from Louisiana State Univer­sity. He and his brother tried to stop a fight, he said, but they never got the chance. The po­lice ar­rived and beat them both, he said, and shat­tered his jaw. He spent months in the hos­pi­tal with his jaw wired shut.

“I hon­estly be­lieve that hav­ing been through Ka­t­rina helped me get through that,” he said. “I don’t know that I would take ei­ther of those back, hon­estly. It’s part of who I am. I be­came a sto­ry­teller. I’m an op­ti­mist; go­ing through those things, I know noth­ing can put my light out.”

This city still bears vis­i­ble scars of Ka­t­rina, build­ings that stand empty, crip­pled mon­u­ments to the flood­ing. But the young men and women in­ter­viewed for this story had one thing in com­mon. They all came back.

They re­turned, not home, but to a per­mu­ta­tion of it, one with an ex­is­ten­tial un­cer­tainty that is no ab­strac­tion.

“Now I know, I’ll never stay in any big storm,” said Shaysa Shief, 22, who was trapped with her fam­ily for days af­ter Ka­t­rina, with no power, lit­tle food or wa­ter. “No one’s go­ing to come help you; you are on your own.”

You look over your shoul­der here, they said, lit­er­ally and men­tally. And you watch the weather forecast.

VIN­CENT LAFORET/THE NEW YORK TIMES FILE PHOTO

In the first seven years af­ter hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, di­ag­nos­able men­tal-health prob­lems in New Or­leans jumped by 9 per cent.

AN­NIE FLANA­GAN/THE NEW YORK TIMES

Now in their 20s, the chil­dren who sur­vived hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, like Jor­dan Bridges, urge the youngest sur­vivors of Har­vey and Irma to seek sta­bil­ity from a par­ent, teacher, pas­tor or sib­ling.

THE NEW YORK TIMES

A Po­laroid be­long­ing to Jor­dan Bridges that sur­vived Ka­t­rina shows Bridges, sec­ond from left, with his fa­ther and broth­ers.

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