Hurricane Katrina survivors cry near the New Orleans Convention Center
Jason Reed  /  Reuters
A mother and her daughter who survived Hurricane Katrina cry at the New Orleans Convention Center on Sept. 2 as they wait for help. The storm victimized hundreds of thousands of children, wrenching apart their families, washing away their homes, and separating them from everything else that was familiar.
updated 9/10/2005 2:17:17 PM ET 2005-09-10T18:17:17

In a disaster within a disaster, unprecedented numbers of shaken children left in Hurricane Katrina’s wake are testing the nation’s network for emergency psychological help, according to caregivers and experts.

Counseling teams have been dispatched to shelters across the South where, beside overwhelmed parents, some children rested on cots with their heads covered, stared into nothingness, or cowered at a simple rain shower.

“When we gonna leave?” Israel Reed kept asking his mother at a shelter in Jackson, Miss., where he marked his 8th birthday with just a bowl of Rice Krispies.

At a shelter in Boynton Beach, Fla., a girl about 8 years old drew crayon pictures of her flooded New Orleans house with floating bodies of people and animals. Then her face turned somber.

“She ... wanted me to really understand,” said psychologist Phil Heller, a volunteer counselor. “This was very scary.”

Thousands off children victimized
The storm victimized hundreds of thousands of children, wrenching apart their families, washing away their homes, and separating them from everything else that was familiar, from friends to pets to stuffed animals.

“They’re trying to process what happened to them. So much has changed in their little lives,” said counselor Keith Gordon in Jackson. “Their concerns are as real as ours.”

Most children who lived through Katrina will show at least some signs of psychological stress, ranging from simple denial or anger to full-blown traumatic grief or post-traumatic stress disorder, according to mental health specialists. Some young children believe their bad behavior is somehow behind their family’s suffering; some have regressed to behaviors of an earlier age, like bed-wetting.

At a Houston shelter, three young children clung to a woman, refusing to let go. “They were not her children, she had no idea who they were, but they had attached to her, and she had become attached to them,” said counselor Bianca Walker.

Judging from past disasters, at least a third of affected children will need professional treatment in coming months, authorities estimate. Counselors were especially worried about children who can’t find their parents. But they were also focusing on children with parents too overwhelmed to tend them normally.

Better coordination needed
Crisis counselors are trying to guide children through the early days of recovery by reassuring, seeking out lost relatives, and rebuilding a sense of normalcy. Many children have been sent to class already at nearby schools; others have been offered a safe place to play at a shelter.

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“What they are going to need is a sense that their environment is safe and secure and stable — as fast as possible,” said Charlie MacCormack, head of Save the Children. The international relief group is teaching schools, churches and other groups to help children cope with Katrina’s aftermath.

Some authorities, including MacCormack, complain that aid for traumatized children has been disorganized and demanded stronger coordination at the federal level.

Complicating the response, the hurricane arrived during a time of transition in treatment, when crisis counselors are switching away from the once-popular care technique known as “critical incident stress debriefing,” which encourages victims to think back on the disaster and vent their feelings, says psychologist Robert Macy, of the federally funded National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. He rushed to a Massachusetts shelter with a team of 10 counselors to meet evacuees.

Federal agencies pressed scores of counselors into service by late in the week. However, Psychologist Daniel Dodgen, who leads the response for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said additional experienced counselors were urgently needed. (They can sign up by clinking on the Katrina link at the agency’s Web site http://www.hhs.gov)

Overall, Dodgen said he was encouraged by early progress. “During the assessment phase, it often looks chaotic, because part of what you’re doing is figuring out who needs to talk to whom and where we have gaps,” he said. “I think we’re still in that assessment phase.”

Long-term impact unknown
The broader impact will materialize months or years from now, as children gradually come to feel that they are safe again, or not. Still, some specialists wonder: Will resources be set aside to bolster them over the long haul, amid demands for post-hurricane funds to replace buildings and roads?

“If you don’t help these kids, what are they going to look like when they grow up?” asked Alan Steinberg, associate director of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress at University of California-Los Angeles.

Parents should remember that it’s not just children directly affected by the hurricane who are troubled, counselors say. Even beyond the storm’s Gulf Coast path, many anxious children who saw pictures or heard talk of the hurricane will need reassurance.

Luckily, most children are resilient, both mentally and physically, and most will bounce back, experts say. Even in shelters this week, many played board games, shot baskets, or spun Hula Hoops.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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