Trauma haunts Puerto Rico kids

Is­land’s lead­ers worry about last­ing men­tal harm to chil­dren

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Rick Jervis

ORO­CO­VIS, Puerto Rico – Chil­dren in this moun­tain ham­let have seen roofs blown off their homes, en­dured weeks of cold din­ners and hot nights and wit­nessed loved ones die in their liv­ing rooms.

Seven weeks after Hur­ri­cane Maria roared through Oro­co­vis on its deadly path through Puerto Rico, lead­ers fear the psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fects of the storm on chil­dren will be long-last­ing and hard to erase.

“Many of them don’t yet un­der­stand the im­pact,” Oro­co­vis Mayor Jesús Colón Ber­lin­geri said. “They don’t un­der­stand why their house doesn’t have wa­ter, why their house doesn’t have power, why it no longer has a roof.

“They need help.”

Men­tal health is be­com­ing a grow­ing con­cern for dis­as­ter and Puerto Ri­can of­fi­cials. Maria, which landed here Sept. 20, was the most dev­as­tat­ing storm to hit the is­land in 70 years, killing more than 50 peo­ple, dis­plac­ing thou­sands and up­end­ing the lives of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants.

Chil­dren who ex­pe­ri­ence de­struc­tive storms are of­ten the most vul­ner­a­ble to long-term men­tal health ef­fects, said Ir­win Redlener, head of the Na­tional Cen­ter

“Many of them don’t yet un­der­stand the im­pact.” Jesús Colón Ber­lin­geri Mayor of Oro­co­vis

for Dis­as­ter Pre­pared­ness at Columbia Univer­sity’s Mail­man School of Pub­lic Health and pres­i­dent of the Chil­dren’s Health Fund.

A study Redlener led after Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina in the Gulf found that one-third of chil­dren in that dis­as­ter re­ported to have at least one men­tal health prob­lem, but fewer than half of their par­ents

were able to ac­cess pro­fes­sional ser­vices. Chil­dren post-Ka­t­rina were 41⁄2 times more likely to have se­ri­ous emo­tional dis­tur­bances than those not af­fected by the dis­as­ter, the study showed.

Maria may spur even more is­sues, since the storm af­fected vir­tu­ally the en­tire is­land and many fam­ily mem­bers have been so busy se­cur­ing ba­sic needs, such as food and wa­ter, that chil­dren’s needs may be over­looked, Redlener said.

Most schools have been closed since the hur­ri­cane hit six weeks ago, though some are likely to re­open this week, re­turn­ing some nor­malcy to young­sters’ lives.

The U.S. De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices and lo­cal groups such as the Ponce Health Sci­ences Univer­sity de­ployed men­tal health ser­vices to im­pacted ar­eas, though much more is prob­a­bly needed, Redlener said. “There’s go­ing to be a mis­match of re­sources and need,” he said.

In Oro­co­vis, a re­mote moun­tain town that fed­eral aid is slow to reach, ed­u­ca­tors ac­cepted an of­fer from Con­necti­cut-based Save the Chil­dren to launch a tem­po­rary child care fa­cil­ity in a shut­tered Catholic school.

Eu­ge­nio Soto, an ed­u­ca­tor and pro­gram co­or­di­na­tor, said 154 chil­dren ages 4 to 15 signed up and spent each morn­ing, from 8 a.m. to noon, the past two weeks sur­rounded by teach­ers, so­cial work­ers and other stu­dents.

At first, the stu­dents were with­drawn and kept to them­selves, he said. “It’s like they had some­thing in­side and they didn’t want any­one to know about it,” Soto said.

Slowly, through pro­grams de­signed to ver­bal­ize thoughts, the stu­dents be­gan shar­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences: how their house lost a roof or their fam­ily was dis­placed, he said.

One stu­dent was up­set that school sup­plies had blown away in the storm. They be­gan talk­ing more. “They could see that we were all go­ing through the same thing, but it hasn’t been the end of the world,” Soto said.

Va­le­ria Gon­za­lez, a buoy­ant, smil­ing 8-year-old, said she misses school but en­joys play­ing with her friends in the tem­po­rary school’s big con­crete pa­tio. Dur­ing Maria, Va­le­ria and her fam­ily gath­ered at her grand­mother’s house to ride out the storm.

When that home started to flood, the fam­ily rushed to her aunt’s house in the mid­dle of the hur­ri­cane.

“We had to go fast be­cause the hur­ri­cane was blow­ing hard and rain­ing,” she said.

The next day, the fam­ily peeked out­side to see dev­as­ta­tion ev­ery­where, in­clud­ing a rel­a­tive’s home that was de­stroyed ex­cept for the bath­room.

“Ev­ery­one was shocked,” Va­le­ria said. “It was ter­ri­ble.”

Puerto Rico says its chil­dren need help to deal with the dam­age done by Hur­ri­cane Maria. JASPER COLT/USA TO­DAY

Fam­i­lies had their pos­ses­sions de­stroyed and homes wrecked when Hur­ri­cane Maria pum­meled Puerto Rico. JASPER COLT/USA TO­DAY

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