The Youngest Survivors
For Cierra, the sound of Katrina is the sound of “people screaming.” She was only 11 years old when the hurricane hit. Years have now passed since “the awful storm,” but she has not forgotten how the water looked as it kept rising, how dark it was at night when there were no lights in New Orleans, or how scared she felt.
We first met Cierra and her mother, Debra, at a large disaster evacuation shelter a few weeks after Katrina. They had just been notified that they had been assigned a new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailer in a park outside the low-lying city of Lafayette, Louisiana. After surviving the storm, enduring a second evacuation caused by Hurricane Rita, and living in the shelter for weeks, they wept with tears of joy when they heard the news of the trailer. But this was also the beginning of new challenges that we watched unfold over subsequent years.
On an October afternoon in 2005, Cierra and Debra sat down with us in a quiet corner of the shelter and shared how their ordeal began. Debra, a 45-year-old African American native of New Orleans with a gentle voice, was part of the janitorial staff at a hospital in the city. Although her supervisors had called her in to work the day before Katrina struck, Debra still described herself as “lucky” because the hospital allowed vital employees to bring their family members with them as part of the hospital emergency response plan. So Debra brought Cierra, her only child, with her.
As the storm intensified throughout the night and as the levees began to give way on that fateful Monday morning of August 29, 2005, the hospital lost electricity and the backup generators failed. The patients, staff, and visiting family members were left with no lights and no air-conditioning. The sticky summer heat was overwhelming, and the hospital started to feel less like a safe refuge and more like a prison surrounded by a moat of rising water on all four sides. Debra rushed around caring for ailing patients, as she also kept a watchful eye on her daughter. Cierra tried to help out in the hospital, too, but mostly she waited and watched and listened.
As the day progressed, Debra and Cierra started to notice more and more people passing by the hospital in boats and on other makeshift floating devices like mattresses and large pieces of cardboard, many of them yelling for help as they bobbed up and down in the murky brown floodwaters. Conditions were deteriorating inside the hospital as well: the lower floors flooded and the elevator stopped working; fresh water was in short supply and what food there was began to spoil; and frail elderly patients were dying from heat exhaustion, a lack of electricity to power their medical devices, insufficient medicine—and perhaps, Debra thought, from fear and hopelessness.
Debra, who was exhausted and stressed to the limit, asked Cierra to stay close by her side. Several times, however, as Debra tried to help staff and patients throughout the hospital, she was separated from her daughter in the darkness and chaos. This left her terrified and searching along pitchblack, sweltering hallways for Cierra. After those frightening moments, Debra had Cierra accompany her everywhere throughout the hospital. Cierra had to watch as hospital interns struggled to carry dying patients up several flights of stairs. She overheard a nurse saying that she should give a patient a big meal because “it would be his last.” She cried when the hospital sign crashed through the enormous picture window at the front of the building, sending shattered glass sliding across the tile entryway.
Cierra and Debra spent four long days and three seemingly endless nights in the hospital. Then they were rescued by boat by fellow survivors who took them to the Superdome in the heart of New Orleans. They stayed in those desperate conditions for another day as they waited for transport out of the city. At last, a van arrived and shuttled them to Lafayette, about two hours west of New Orleans. Once there, they joined a wave of tens of thousands of Katrina survivors at the Cajundome, a sports arena that was converted to a temporary disaster relief shelter. At the Cajundome, evacuees entered through double doors with a metal detector and armed guards in camouflage fatigues. They slept on the stadium floor on rows and rows of fold-out cots. Adults stood in long lines waiting for food, medicine, and temporary housing information while shelter workers and other volunteers tried to keep the children busy with activities.
Debra and Cierra had never been outside New Orleans. They had no family or friends in Lafayette, and as they would learn over the coming weeks, the rest of their loved ones were scattered across several states: Cierra’s dad and his family evacuated to Texas, while her favorite aunt, her uncle, and her grandmother were separated and relocated by the government to other parts of Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia. For the first time, Debra and Cierra were truly on their own. Their rental home in New Orleans was damaged beyond repair. All of their belongings and keepsakes, including photos and Cierra’s childhood artwork, achievement ribbons, and trophies, were gone. Nothing could be salvaged. Cierra’s school was not scheduled to reopen until January 2006, at the earliest, and Debra had no job to return to because the hospital where she had worked was closed indefinitely.
As they told their story, Debra’s brown eyes filled with tears and Cierra spoke in barely a whisper as she remembered looking out at the “dirty water” that covered her city. Even after all that they had endured, Debra and Cierra, mother and daughter, buoyed by each other and their faith, remarked that they had been “blessed” to meet the “God-sent angels” at the Cajundome, the stadium staff and other volunteers who supported them after the storm.
At the end of the interview, Cierra gently asked if she could sing us a song. We told her we would love it if she did. It was “Amazing Grace.”
Cierra was one of tens of thousands of children directly affected by Hurricane Katrina. We wanted to know: What happened to these children? What did they need during the emergency response and recovery periods? Who helped them? How did they help themselves and other young people? How did their lives unfold following the catastrophe and displacement?
To answer these questions, we spent seven years studying the experiences of children and youth in the aftermath of Katrina. (For a discussion of the complexity associated with defining children and youth, see appendix A, Who Counts as a Child?) This book draws on our observations of and interviews with a group of young people who were between the ages of 3 and 18 at the time of the storm. We also spent a great deal of time with their family members, teachers and other school personnel, childcare providers, shelter workers, and many additional persons tasked with caring for children. Children of Katrina presents the stories of some of the youngest survivors of the storm to describe what happened to them. We also draw upon official statistics and published studies to further explore the myriad ways that children’s lives were shaped by Katrina.
MISPERCEPTIONS ABOUT CHILDREN, YOUTH, AND DISASTER
Children differ from one another in countless ways. Nevertheless, adults in our society often share preconceptions about children as a category. Thus, before we present the stories in this book, it is important for us to clear the blackboard of some of these misleading perceptions and portrayals of children.
First, many members of the public subscribe to the resilience myth. From this vantage point, children are seen as being blissfully unaware of, and mostly unaffected by, disasters. The assumption is that children, like little rubber balls, will “bounce back” quickly from the harmful effects of disaster, even with no outside support or assistance. In essence, no matter what happens, the belief is that they are somehow naturally resilient and will be okay.
A second misconception regarding children and disaster is in effect the opposite of the first. We refer to this as the helpless victims myth. This worldview casts children as powerless and fragile, always rendered completely incapable of acting in the face of disaster. As such, children are perceived as being in need of multiple specialized interventions to ensure their safety and recovery from catastrophe.
A third misconception, the disasters as equal opportunity events myth, paints extreme events as impacting all children equally. Those who subscribe to this myth fail to recognize that the youngest members of any given society, just like adults, face significant race, gender, and class inequalities that shape their everyday experiences and life chances. This viewpoint also ignores the variability among children, which is influenced by age and developmental processes as well as levels of cognitive and physical ability.
The danger of these misleading conceptions is that they may distort all that adults see—or do not see—when they attempt to assist, engage with, or study children and youth in the aftermath of disaster. Our research suggests that children’s vulnerabilities as well as their capabilities are affected by an array of factors. Children do have unique needs that must be met in the aftermath of disaster. At the same time, they make important contributions and have many strengths, which are all too often misunderstood or overlooked altogether. In times of trouble, the fates of children are every bit as complex as those of adults.
This book grew out of a commitment to listen carefully to children’s voices to assure that those voices “contribute to discussions and interventions that affect their lives.”1 Prior to the 1980s, children were “written about but rarely consulted.” The sociology of childhood aims to correct this scholarly shortcoming by conceptualizing children as constructive members of society who both shape and are shaped by their social circumstances.3 This perspective recognizes that children need to be listened to and responded to, but first, they must be encouraged to speak.
Although the sociological study of children and youth has undergone a major paradigm shift over recent decades, much of the research on children and disaster continues to rely on parents’, teachers’, or clinicians’ reports of children’s well-being. There is obviously value in these approaches to studying children in disaster contexts, yet there are many reasons to be cautious of relying solely on adults’ answers to survey and interview questions about children’s actions, attitudes, and overall health.
Indeed, some adults’ descriptions of children’s behaviors are not rooted in systematic observation. Instead they may be based on vague impressions or generalized characterizations. Moreover, how children act in the presence of their parents, teachers, or health care providers may be quite different than how they behave when they are not under the watchful supervision of adults. Children sometimes tell adults what they think they want to hear, rather than what they actually feel or believe. They may also withhold information to “protect” their parents. As a case in point, Mekana, one of the teens in our study, said she would “hide” her true emotions and hold her “feelings in” when she was around her mom. In the months following Katrina, her mother was angry and struggled with depression. Mekana eventually reached a point where she would simply tell her mother, “I do not feel like talking about this,” so that she could avoid crying or “being all sad” in front of her. This example and the other aforementioned potential shortcomings of adult-centric research on children help explain, in part, why adults consistently underreport children’s levels of post-disaster distress and underestimate children’s preparedness levels and recovery needs.
Our research adopts the basic premise that “the most direct way to learn about children is to learn from children.” We view children as capable actors who are the “best authorities on their own lives.” At the same time, we recognize and respect the need to seek information from the adults in children’s lives who support, care for, raise, teach, and socialize them. Children are obviously strongly influenced by their families and the broader social contexts in which they live, and thus “a child’s voice cannot be disembedded from the living world, it must be framed as part of the world.” With this admonition in mind, and recognizing the value of multiple viewpoints, we also draw on interviews and observations with numerous adults who helped or otherwise worked with children before and after Hurricane Katrina.
STUDYING CHILDREN AND YOUTH AFTER KATRINA
Hurricane Katrina is widely considered one of the worst disasters in our national experience. Even a brief accounting of the scope of physical destruction and human suffering inflicted by the storm helps explain why Katrina will likely long hold that grim distinction. Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida were directly affected by the wind, rain, storm surge, and tornadoes that Katrina generated. The government declared 90,000 square miles—a stretch of land the size of Great Britain—a federal disaster area. Eighty percent of the city of New Orleans was submerged after sections of the inadequate levee system failed. Entire communities along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in rural Louisiana were wiped off the map.
An estimated 1.2 to 1.5 million persons fled their homes in the days and hours preceding Katrina’s landfall. In New Orleans, another 100,000 or so people were unable or unwilling to evacuate. Many were eventually plucked from rooftops and highway overpasses amidst the floodwaters. Over 1,800 persons—most of them in Louisiana—died from drowning, exposure, or medical conditions that worsened lethally as already ailing individuals waited for help that never came. Katrina remains the most costly U.S. disaster on record, generating over $135 billion in insured and uninsured losses across the affected region. More than a million Gulf Coast housing units and at least 10,000 businesses sustained substantial damage or were completely destroyed.
The vulnerability of children was starkly apparent in Hurricane Katrina. A dozen children in Louisiana perished in the hurricane itself. An untold number lost loved ones, were orphaned, or were left homeless. Over 5,000 children were reported missing for a time, many of whom were separated from their family members for days or weeks and in some cases for months. Children in foster care faced particular challenges, as often important records and parent contact information were lost or destroyed. The U.S. Department of Education estimated that some 372,000 students were displaced from their home communities in the states directly affected by Katrina, while 160,000 remained dislocated years after the storm. Many of these displaced children were from New Orleans, where more than two-thirds of the school district’s 300-plus buildings were considered to be in “poor” or “very poor” condition due to storm damage and long-neglected maintenance issues. Research suggests that nearly half of all children in Louisiana who survived Katrina suffered from serious and ongoing mental health issues. Officials in New Orleans also reported that drug-related deaths and suicides increased among young people as a consequence of the disaster.
It is worth pausing for a moment to note that even as devastating as Katrina was, for many children along the Gulf Coast, the hurricane was not their first traumatic, stressful, dangerous, or life-threatening experience. In fact, tens of thousands of those children had experienced “daily disasters” associated with poverty, violence, failing schools, and other associated social problems well before Katrina. In Louisiana, nearly one-third of all children were living in poverty before the storm, with disproportionately high percentages of children of color living below the poverty line.
One post-Katrina survey of 700 displaced children from New Orleans revealed that an astonishing 60 percent of these young people, most of whom were African American, had witnessed a shooting or a murder prior to the hurricane, almost half had seen a drug sale, and 42 percent had seen physical violence between a man and a woman. Even before Katrina, New Orleans public schools were among the worst-performing in the nation. They were also highly segregated by race and class, enrolling five times more African American students than the national average (93.4 percent of New Orleans’s public school students were African American at the time of Katrina) and twice as many low-income children (80 percent of the students were poor enough to meet eligibility requirements for free or reduced-cost lunch subsidies).
These numbers depicting some aspects of life from both before and after Katrina are meant to give a general sense of the contours of the region and the persons most affected by the storm. But these statistics do not do justice to the full effect of the catastrophe. Facts and figures, printed dispassionately in black and white, do not convey what Katrina has meant to the people whose lives were upended, whose families were displaced, and whose homes and communities were changed forever.
It was against this backdrop that we began our study. We started our fieldwork in October 2005, just over a month after the storm came ashore. By that time, we were relatively seasoned observers of disaster. We had each conducted research in New York City after the 9/11 attacks, and one of us had studied flood-soaked communities in the Midwest. We were trained at the same university as sociologists and disaster researchers and we had worked closely together before.
Thus as we prepared to travel to Louisiana soon after Katrina, we had some idea what it is like to interview persons who have just experienced numbing losses, and we wanted to approach the research with the utmost sensitivity. We were aware that past research had revealed that disaster studies rarely cause emotional burdens for the participants, and in fact, scholars have argued that disaster survivors may actually experience some benefits from telling their stories to researchers. Yet, we still gave careful thought to how our study would affect the children and families at the center of our inquiry. (For more discussion of these research and ethical issues, see appendix B, Studying Children and Youth in Disaster: A Note on Methods.)
With a sense of caution and these considerations in mind, we boarded planes in Vermont and Colorado, the states where we lived, and flew to Louisiana for the first of many field research trips. The ethical concerns, and the responsibility that we felt toward the children and adults who ultimately participated in our study, never went away, however. We tried to always remain sensitive to this dynamic, while also adjusting our methods accordingly. We were committed from the beginning to studying children over the long term. Although the one-time case study method predominates in disaster research, we knew that if we wanted to understand how Katrina was influencing the lives of children, we would have to remain in the field for a longer period to develop enough trust to be granted permission to watch those processes unfold over time.
We also wanted both breadth and depth in this research. Therefore, on the one hand, we sought out interviews from as broad an array of individuals as possible. We purposefully sampled children from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and of different social classes and included an equal number of boys and girls in our study. All totaled over the seven-year period of this research, we studied well over 650 children between the ages of 3 and 18 years old and interviewed approximately 100 adults. The sample of adults included family members, teachers, pastors, friends, neighbors, city officials, social workers, relief workers, American Red Cross volunteers, childcare center staff, school administrators such as principals and vice principals, and other school staff, such as nurses and custodians.
Because we had varying levels of contact with the children in the larger sample, we divide our youngest respondents into focal, core, secondary, and tertiary groups (see figure 1.1).
1. The focal sample includes seven young people whom we studied in the most depth (details are included below).
2. The core sample includes 25 children whom we formally interviewed and observed at multiple points in time over seven years.
3. The secondary sample includes 60 additional children whom we formally or informally interviewed and observed at one point in time.
4. The tertiary sample includes a group of approximately 575 children whom we observed but did not interview formally. We watched them go about their lives and/or had informal conversations with them in classrooms, on playgrounds, in school lunchrooms, in disaster relief centers, and in public places such as shopping centers and restaurants.
Because so many families were displaced after the storm, our research took us not only to New Orleans, but also to Baton Rouge, Lafayette, New Iberia, and Scott in Louisiana and to Denver, Colorado, and Dallas, Texas (see figure 1.2). (It is important to underscore that the individuals in our sample evacuated and were temporarily displaced to many more locations than those listed here. These were the places where we were able to actually visit in order to collect data.) Traveling to these sites gave us more insight into the attitudes of the “receiving communities” toward the evacuees. Some of these receiving communities were welcoming at first, but then relations became strained when the displaced stayed longer than expected and needed work, housing, public transportation, and social services.
We made over a dozen field visits over the seven-year period of this research, which culminated in well over 1,000 hours in the field. We visited schools and childcare centers in all of the study locations so we could talk to teachers, counselors, school administrators, and childcare providers. We participated in youth-organized and youth-led community events such as a neighborhood community garden celebration and a forum to talk about police actions in public schools. We spent time in disaster shelters, emergency relief centers, FEMA trailer parks, and later in the temporary and permanent homes of evacuees. We observed hundreds of children going about their daily lives in disaster shelters, playing in school yards and parks, eating lunch in school cafeterias, and worshipping together during church services. The data that we accumulated allowed us to understand the broader context of Katrina.
In order to ensure depth in our research, we eventually identified a sample of 25 core children and their families whom we decided to follow closely over time—seven of whom we refer to as the “focal children” in this book. Drawing this smaller sample and engaging in what Annette Lareau calls “intensive immersion”31 allowed us to more fully understand the experiences of boys and girls; children of differing racial and class backgrounds with diverse family structures; and children and youth of a range of ages—from toddlers to teenagers and young adults—when Katrina happened.
We chose these focal children, in part, because of their dissimilar disaster experiences and the fact that they were subjected to differing degrees of loss and displacement as a consequence of Katrina. Each of the focal children and their families lived in New Orleans prior to Katrina. All families experienced some damage to their housing (ranging from minor water damage to complete destruction) and all were displaced for some length of time after the storm. Some returned to the city in the months or years after the storm, but some never did.
Between 2005 and 2012, we interviewed each of the seven focal children at least five times. We also interviewed their siblings, parents, grandparents, and other extended family members, friends, and staff from their schools, typically on multiple occasions as well. This involvement provided us with a deeper understanding of the many consequences of Katrina and of how dynamic post-disaster trajectories unfold over time.
Thus, the largest group, the tertiary sample, provided us with a strong sense of the population we were dealing with and the problems they were experiencing. Our job after that was to progressively zero in, to learn more about the themes identified. We began that process with more contact and conversations with 60 children selected for the purpose because they seemed to us reasonably representative of that larger population. We then turned to a core sample of 25 whom we interviewed and observed more closely, and finally we focused on 7 young people from the core sample because we felt that we had to get down to the personal grit so that we could convey the situation accurately. For us to discuss the circumstances of hundreds of young people would be to shift into a world of statistics and numbers. To get to know seven young people well and to be able to relate their stories is to get down to matters of tone and texture and feeling. In effect, then, the focal children who are centerpieces of this book are voices selected from a chorus of hundreds because their experiences reflect a much larger population. We tell their stories, but they are speaking for multitudes. Moreover, while they are exceptional young people in many ways, they are not the exception. Instead, we selected them for more indepth study and research because their experiences represented the much broader sample.
In order to gain richer, more in-depth data, we used a number of prompts and methodological approaches with the young people in our study (see appendix B). For example, we had the children and youth work through a series of flash cards where they took the lead and guided us through key aspects of their lives and post-Katrina experiences. We asked some of the older children to trace their own or their siblings’ recovery process, while we had the younger children draw pictures for us about their storm experiences (see figure 1.3).
This book is intended for interested general readers as well as for anyone who studies or wants to learn more about Katrina and the social impacts of disasters, the sociology of childhood, family studies, or qualitative research methods. Most broadly, this book is for anyone who is curious about how Katrina affected the lives, families, housing and educational contexts, and communities of the youngest survivors of the storm. It also is for those who hope to learn more about what helped or hindered children’s recovery, as well as about the ways that children and youth were actively engaged in assisting after the storm.
We have organized the book primarily around the seven focal children and their post-disaster experiences. Before we share their stories, however, chapter 2 helps to place this study in a larger context; it offers an overview of what is currently known about children, youth, and disasters. We also introduce the theoretical perspectives that guide this work, as well as a number of concepts that we used or developed over the course of the research as we sought to make sense of the children’s lived realities.
The main body of the book is divided into three parts, each with a section introduction. Those parts illustrate the three trajectories we identified in our research: the declining trajectory, the finding-equilibrium trajectory, and the fluctuating trajectory. The empirical chapters in each section describe the personal characteristics, preand post-disaster life circumstances, and experiences of the focal children and their families (table 1.1). In chapters 3 and 4, you will meet Daniel and Mekana, who represent the declining trajectory. Chapters 5 and 6 tell the stories of Zachary, Isabel, and Cierra, who fit the finding-equilibrium trajectory. The stories of Jerron and Clinton, whose recovery processes align with the fluctuating trajectory, are featured in chapters 7 and 8. In each of the focal children’s chapters, we include observational and interview data with the children themselves, as well as with family members, peers, and with key adult figures such as teachers and pastors in their lives. In each instance, we detail the people and places that were most significant to the focal children. We also discuss various other factors, such as access to health care, religious or extracurricular involvement, and neighborhood context, which ultimately shaped the children’s trajectories.
The book concludes with a summary of the key findings from this longterm study, with a special emphasis on the personal and social forces that increased children’s vulnerability both before and after Katrina. We also discuss those factors that helped aid their recovery and describe the myriad ways that children helped themselves, as well as others, in the aftermath of the catastrophe.
We spent nearly a decade researching and writing this book. We learned a great deal along the way from the children and adults who were generous and trusting enough to share their stories with us. It is our sincere hope that readers, when they get to the end, will have a much better sense of what the children of Katrina experienced and how this catastrophic event affected their worldviews, their aspirations, their relationships, and their overall life circumstances.