Hurricane Katrina Still Has Emotional Grip on Thousands of Children

Jeff Mays | 9/3/2010, 7:59 a.m.

When hurricane season in New Orleans rolls around, Kecia Powell knows her 12-year-old son, Tyrec Yancy, is likely to be nervous.

"He looks at the bottom of the television screen and if it mentions anything about a storm, he says, 'Mom, where are we going?'" Powell told AOL BlackVoices in an interview.

Five years ago, the family evacuated to Houston just before Hurricane Katrina hit. They stayed for a year, but the storm, the evacuation and new circumstances took a toll on Tyrec, especially during school.
"We would get calls weekly. I told him, 'You can't be mad with the world,' but he would fight. I didn't even want to answer the phone sometimes, but I had to because he is my child," said Powell.

Tyrec's story is not that uncommon, according to a new report on the mental health of children who experienced Hurricane Katrina.

Sixty percent of children, approximately 20,000 kids, displaced by Katrina were moved to trailer parks or hotels. These children have serious emotional disorders and behavioral issues, according to the study, which was conducted by the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and funded by the Children's Health Fund.

Children displaced by Katrina are also 4.5 times more likely to have serious emotional disturbances than their peers.

"Five years after Katrina, a number of people are getting better, reclaiming their lives and moving forward," David Abramson, director of research for the Columbia National Center for Disaster Preparedness, told AOL BlackVoices. "But there is a sizable proportion that is still struggling. Every year, we expect to see [that number] diminishing, but it doesn't seem to be diminishing at a rate we would like."

Abramson and fellow researchers call it the "Katrina Effect" and it can lead to both short-term and long-term problems.The short-term problems are behavioral and educational issues, such as kids falling behind in school. The study found that 34 percent of middle- and- high-school-aged kids were a year or more older than their appropriate grade. Other behavioral problems can include things like high-risk sexual behavior.

In the long term, "toxic stress" can lead to serious medical problems:

"The accumulation of stress leads to metabolic, chemical and biological changes that shorten lives, such as diabetes and high blood pressure," Abramson said.

After moving back to New Orleans, Powell says her son was able to find a stable environment at KIPP Central City Academy. He has since improved by leaps and bounds and loves math.

Kelly McClure, director of academics for KIPP New Orleans Schools, says she sees mental health issues caused or exacerbated by Katrina play out in her kids every day:

"We are still getting kids who were out of school for a year or two and kids who lost their home and have been living the last few years on the road with relatives, and even separated from their parents. There was just a lot of disruption to their regular way of life and that's a tough transition in their young lives," McClure told AOL BlackVoices.

"Kids that are in fifth or sixth grade now were in very pivotal stages of the developmental cycle when Katrina struck. We have seen trends in certain age group where behavior is more of an issue," McClure added.

There is no mental health day program within the city limits and there is also a lack of providers, said McClure. As a result of Katrina, KIPP schools will begin a mental health survey for the first time to gauge the status and needs of students.

The recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has only added to the trauma. More than one-third of parents within 10 miles of the coast line report that their children have experienced physical symptoms or mental health distress as a result of the spill, the study found.

Powell said she knew how affected her son was by the storm, because while in Houston, a storm came and they tried to evacuate but couldn't. She could see the fear on her son's face.

"He was worried it would happen again and he asked, 'Mom, what are we going to do.' I said, 'We are going to pray about it, go to sleep and wait it out,'" said Powell.

Luckily nothing came of the storm, but Powell said she sees the same anxiety in her friends' children:

"I have a girlfriend whose daughter was at a family gathering and she ran in to a family room when it started thundering and lightning and was screaming. 'I don't want to drown. I don't want to die.' She was terrified and there are a lot of kids like that. It has affected a lot of people."

The report suggests making enhanced mental health services available to children while providing safe, stable housing as quickly as possible. The caregivers also must be given the appropriate support, because they are the key to helping their children return to normalcy.

"You have kids in households where the parents are under tremendous strain, sometimes there is not enough money or food and parents are concerned about their children's safety," said Abramson. "The answer is not simply providing more therapy for kids. We should be thinking about how to help the parents and the community."

Powell said she feels like she's come a long way with her son, who now loves going to school.

"We talk as a family, and he still asks different questions, but he knows that we are going to be all right," Powell said.