"What Katrina Looked Like," by Joseph, 10-years-old at the time of the storm. ©Lori Peek, 2007.
The destruction that has unfolded in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria reminds us of the hardships we witnessed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Following that terrible storm, we embarked on a seven-year-study of the recovery experiences of children and youth from New Orleans.
We believe the lessons from Katrina can help now. Indeed, what we learned from those young people, their families, and their teachers can be of use to those providing aid and assistance to the children affected by recent major disasters. We found that the children of Katrina did many creative things to help other children. Adults, too, mobilized resources and invested in organizations and institutions to fight for more positive outcomes for children.
In the spirit of assisting the most recent survivors, we offer six groups of recommendations that came out of our research. These are based around what we refer to as the “spheres” of a child’s life.
First and foremost, children need routine and predictability in their family life. They also need compassion, as children might be dealing with other simultaneous crises, such as divorce or illness in their families. Children whose families have few resources are especially in need of these forms of support, information, and opportunities. Single parents, often mothers, need additional support, such as trustworthy childcare services, during displacement.
For children who are displaced, they need clear, meaningful information about their extended family members. Ideally, they should have a chance to communicate with them and be reassured that their displaced family members are safe and that they will see them again.
In temporary shelters, children need child-friendly spaces to rest, play, and study; adults should be present to protect and comfort them. Shelters should consider feeding needs, privacy, and safety for infants as well as older girls, boys, and transgender children and youth. If possible, it is beneficial to offer safe outdoor spaces for children to play both around shelters and in temporary housing sites. During the emergency period and the rebuilding, emergency managers and planners should be cognizant of accessibility for children with disabilities.
As the recovery and rebuilding process begins, we recommend that housing assistance be a funding and policy priority, especially for low-income renters. Temporary housing should be carefully screened for the health and safety of children and youth, whose bodies are more susceptible to mold and toxins. As the children of Katrina taught us, displaced residents, even the youngest ones, should have a voice in communicating and shaping post-disaster housing options.
Educational continuity is key to recovery, and thus affected children need to resume their education and get back to a predictable school routine as soon as possible. Resources for the repair and reopening of schools are critical, as well as resources and support for those schools receiving displaced students from the disaster zone.
Schools could offer optional peer-oriented and/or peer-led groups, and programs should support schools to ensure they have licensed professional counselors, social workers, and school therapists to help onsite. Training school staff to provide support to students and know how to recognize signs of distress is highly valuable. Lesson plans and assignments can be designed to engage students in projects relevant to their lives (such as risk mapping) and support them (such as with art therapy).
Children and youth need opportunities to help others, so provide them with chances for projects such as service learning, fundraising, community action, or mentoring. Teachers may also be recovering from the disaster, and thus short- and longer-term support for them is important.
The importance of friends and peer groups during displacement is often overlooked and should be recognized and supported. Children need to locate and reconnect with their friends in the aftermath of disaster. Helping them communicate with them—through calling, texting, or social media—can lessen their fears and concerns about their wellbeing. As children and youth find themselves in new, unfamiliar surroundings, they may need help adjusting to new peer groups and making new friends, so “buddy programs” are helpful.
For children who are involved in sports, a religious institution, or organizations like scouts or 4-H Club, this sphere of their life often allows them to discover skills and strengths and to develop social networks outside of family and school. In the aftermath of a disaster, children often lose access to such important extracurricular activities. As children either return to the disaster-affected neighborhood, or settle into a new place, they should have the opportunity to be involved in age-appropriate activities. To help facilitate that, they may need help with transportation, fees, and uniforms, among other things. Children and youth also benefit from being able to share their experiences through creative mediums, so providing them a space for writing, art, theater, and dance is recommended.
Health and Well-Being
The emotional and physical health and well-being of children is a fundamental part of their recovery. Health and well-being are not distributed equally—low-income children and children of color face more health challenges during non-disaster times, such as food insecurity and asthma, and have less access to affordable, high-quality health care.
Children’s physical and emotional health are interconnected, and they should receive care for both. This means that in a post-disaster period, they may need to be taught how to make healthy choices for their bodies. Children need fresh air, exercise, and an environment free from environmental risks, such as spilled oil, sewage, asbestos, black mold, mildew, and contaminated soil. Their exposure to hazardous materials in the rebuilding process should be limited as much as possible. Since disaster effects are often enduring, children need access to long-term emotional assistance.
Children, and especially the most socially disadvantaged children, may have simultaneous and ongoing needs in all spheres of their lives. As we watch the recovery unfold from the historic storms of 2017, we are reminded of how critical it is that attention be paid to the youngest survivors of disaster and that collectively we prioritize their needs.