A tough hurricane recovery job: Making kids feel safe again
When Tiffany Harris and her two children emerged from their hotel after Hurricane Michael roared past, her 3-year-old son pointed to a sea of fallen trees and shattered buildings.
“It’s broken. It’s broken, Mommy, fix it,” she recalls her little boy Amari begging.
Harris, who lives with her boyfriend, two children, plus her sister and her four children near Panama City, soon learned their town house was uninhabitable. Everything was a total loss after Michael powered inland across the Florida Panhandle as a Category 4 monster on Oct. 10.
“All their toys are just gone. Even shoes and clothes,” Harris said, tears welling in her eyes. “All we have is what’s left in our car.”
The two families, with six children between them, were forced because of mold to leave the hotel where they went for a time. They ended up about four hours away in Gainesville, north Florida. Finding food and shelter each night was a struggle. Often they had to sleep in their car.
Hurricanes and the daily challenges that come with surviving what follows can be especially troubling for children, who may be too young to understand what’s happening around them. It’s been especially hard on Harris’ two toddlers.
Sometimes the toddlers refuse to eat. Getting them to use the bathroom has again become a struggle. The children are irritable, constantly asking why they can’t go home. And Harris’ normally happy 2-year-old daughter, Ayla, cries all the time.
“It’s the worst feeling as a mother. To not be able to help or do anything or change anything,” said the 25-yearold mother. “I can’t fix it.”
After Michael’s rampage, some children in the Panhandle hurricane zone had to wait weeks for schools to reopen. Others had to remain for a time in temporary living quarters. And experts say children are undergoing severe stress as they watch their parents attempt to rebuild their lives.
“That loss of safety, loss of innocence and that loss of routine and the ability to really enjoy play. You particularly see that in children in shelters,” said Sarah Thompson, director of U.S. emergencies for Save the Children.
The organization hosted therapeutic play areas in three shelters impacted by Michael. Those programs are staffed by experts who work on “listening to them and saying, ‘it’s OK to feel angry and it’s OK to be fearful in this situation,’” said Thompson.
After a traumatic event, experts note, some children become hyperactive, while others withdraw and become quiet. For some, the stress affects sleeping, eating and bathroom patterns.