Trauma haunts Puerto Rico kids
Island’s leaders worry about lasting mental harm to children
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