A tough hur­ri­cane re­cov­ery job: Mak­ing kids feel safe again

The Standard Journal - - LOCAL - By Kelli Kennedy

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.

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