FLOODS TAKE A HEAVY TOLL ON CHILDREN
Homes are ruined, schools are closed and families face uncertain futures
DENHAM SPRINGS, LA. >> Michelle Parrott’s children hear thunder when there is no storm. When rain does fall, they ask their mother if the floodwaters are rising again.
In flood-ravaged pockets of South Louisiana, mental scars are already showing on the youngest victims of a disaster that prompted more than 30,000 rescues and left an estimated 40,000 homes damaged.
Children who endured harrowing rescues are returning home to a jarring landscape that even their parents can scarcely grasp: Homes filled with ruined possessions need to be quickly gutted. Scores of damaged schools and day care centers are closed indefinitely. Parents juggling jobs and cleanup work must also line up caretakers for their kids.
Parrott, her husband and her six children, ages 6 to 17, have slept in cars, a shelter and a hotel room in the week since they had to be rescued by boat. The flooding wrecked their home in Livingston Parish, where one official has estimated that three-quarters of the residences are a total loss after more than 2 feet of rain fell in three days.
“The emotional toll on the kids has been heavy. They’re all in a bit of shock and stress and having meltdowns and tantrums,” Parrot said. “Trying to get back into their routine is going to be difficult when we don’t know what the future holds for us.”
Routines are particularly important for her 17-year-old son, Blake, who is autistic and attends special-needs classes at one of the many Denham Springs schools damaged in the floods.
“He feels unsafe constantly. He’s had a lot of breakdowns,” she said. “We’ve had trouble getting his medications in. The therapist flooded, so he’s lacking the emotional support he needs from professionals.”
Parrott home-schools her other five children, but she watched more than $10,000 in school materials float away. “I have to start over,” she said. Thirteen deaths have been attributed to the storm and its flooding, and nearly 4,000 people remain in shelters.
But signs of recovery emerged Friday.
Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that FEMA will start paying for hotel rooms for storm victims staying in cars, hotels, shelters or their workplaces. A disaster food stamp program will begin Monday. And the state intends to start consolidating shelters this weekend as more of the displaced return home or find other places to stay.
The floods hit just as the school year was starting in many districts, reminiscent of how Hurricane Katrina abruptly ended a New Orleans school year that had barely begun in 2005.
For most parents in the flood zone this week, patience is their only option. Some school districts, including in East Baton Rouge Parish, are making plans to reopen their doors next week.
But in Livingston Parish it could take several weeks, maybe even months.
Bonnie Nastasi, a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans specializing in school psychology, said addressing the disruption of children’s lives is as important as helping them with the initial trauma they experienced during the flooding. Many had to be rescued in the darkness of night, plucked from their homes and packed together in crowded shelters.
“Re-establishing the routine of school is going to be important for children. If they can resume normal routines, that helps them to feel more safe and more secure,” Nastasi said.
Livingston Parish Schools Superintendent Rick Wentzel said about onethird of the district’s schools sustained some sort of flood damage. Many teachers lost their homes and are coping with trauma of their own.
“These teachers are going to be able to sympathize with these kids because they experienced the same things,” he said. “We’re going to get back. It won’t be long.”
Sgt. Chad McCann of Deville, La., brings a young child to a waiting UH-60 Black Hawk to be taken to safety after floodwaters threatened his home in South Louisiana. More than 3,000 Louisiana National Guard members are still engaged in flood response efforts.