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Final hurricane-displaced child, family reunited

In this photo provided by National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Cortez Stewart, 4, center, is reunited with her mother and siblings March 16 in Houston.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When 4-year-old Cortez Stewart was reunited with her mother and five siblings in Texas last week, it closed a happy chapter in the sad story of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Cortez represented the last of 5,192 Gulf Coast children listed as missing or displaced after the storms struck more than six months ago. The effort to reunite those youngsters became the largest child-recovery effort in U.S. history.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children worked with the FBI, Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Postal Service, Red Cross and other agencies to reunite children separated from their parents or guardians when Katrina hit on Aug. 29 and Rita hit just a few weeks later.

“I can’t say that there aren’t a few children that may have been missing and not reported to us, but we received more calls than anyone else did, and all our cases have been resolved,” said Bob O’Brien, director of the center’s missing children division.

Frantic rescues
In the months following Katrina, the agency received reports of 4,710 children missing or displaced in Louisiana, 339 in Mississippi and 39 in Alabama. In Louisiana, most of the reports were about children in the New Orleans area, where heavy flooding and frantic rescues separated families.

After Rita, another 28 children were reported missing or displaced in Louisiana; 76 were reported in Texas.

Of the more than 5,000 children from both storms, all but 12 were found alive. Most were found living with other relatives, family friends or other adults, O’Brien said.

Cortez, the final child, was reunited with her mother and five siblings in Houston on March 16. She hadn’t seen her family since Katrina hit and was taken to a New Orleans hotel by her godmother.

The two were rescued by helicopter as floodwaters rose around the hotel, and they were eventually taken to Atlanta, O’Brien said. Meanwhile, Cortez’s mother, Lisa Stewart, and her five other children were rescued by boat from their New Orleans home, taken to an interstate overpass and then to the Houston Astrodome, he said.

The family ended up in an apartment in Houston, not knowing whether Cortez and her godmother had made it out of New Orleans alive. Early efforts to reconnect the family were hampered by incorrect name spellings and other erroneous information, O’Brien said.

“Many agencies didn’t have a good account of who they were helping,” O’Brien said. “Moving them from shelter to shelter, by air, by bus, the transfers, people were separated. More than 411,000 were evacuated to more than 40 states, and it became very hard to track the movement.”

Teams sent nationwide
The national center sent teams of volunteers to shelters in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas to take photos of evacuated children to post on the agency’s Web site with information about the children to speed the reuniting effort.

The agency logged more than 34,000 phone calls starting in early September, when the agency established a missing persons hotline at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice. Of the missing children cases, 45 involved children who arrived at shelters with no parent or guardian.

All of those cases were resolved by early October, O’Brien said.

Besides the missing children, more than 12,000 missing adults were reported to the agency’s Katrina/Rita Missing Persons Hotline and were referred to the National Center for Missing Adults.

State authorities say roughly 1,900 people are still missing. It is suspected some may have washed to sea or remain buried by debris in New Orleans. Others have been found but haven’t notified authorities, while some do not want to be found.