By Shay Bilchik,
President and CEO, CWLA
During Hurricane Andrew in 1992, my family survived by huddling inside a bathroom in our Florida home. Once the wind and rain subsided, we emerged to find our windows broken, most of the ceilings in the house collapsed, and six inches of water on the floor. Neighbors' homes and local stores and businesses in our community sustained similar damage. Our world, as we knew it, had drastically changed.
Thanks to insurance, we were able to rebuild within five months. During the reconstruction period, however, we felt overwhelmingly disconnected from the rest of our community. Our children didn't attend their school for a period of time, and our neighbors moved in different directions. Some eventually returned; others did not.
The damage Hurricane Andrew inflicted pales in comparison to Katrina's and Rita's destruction to lives, homes, and businesses in the Gulf Coast region last summer. But most victims of powerful hurricanes and other natural disasters have one thing in common--the disconnections they experience, for varying lengths of time, from all that was stable and familiar in their lives before the event.
These disconnections are not unlike what abused and neglected children experience after being removed from their homes with little or no notice. For these children, we have established a foster care system and supporting services. Public and private agencies work day in and day out to ensure their safety and well-being.
Now we must work equally as hard for the thousands of children and families affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. So far, we have made attempts to meet emergency needs, providing shelter, food, and clothing. But we cannot lose sight, six months after the event, of the chaos and ruin the storms caused and the ongoing need to help families make new connections and reestablish old ones. Organizations such as the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) provide vitally important information on how families can cope following a disastrous hurricane. This information was very useful last fall and remains applicable months later.
NCTSN points out, for example, that children's reactions following a hurricane are strongly influenced by the reactions of the adults around them, including parents, teachers, and other caregivers. Children will turn to these adults for information, comfort, and help. It's important, therefore, that we model calm behavior in front of the children in our care and reassure them that they are safe and their friends are also safe and under the care of adults. We must practice continued dialogue with children and encourage their questions.
Now that families are either reestablishing homes in new communities or returning to their original homes or ones nearby, structure and routine are vitally important for children, such as consistent mealtimes and bedtimes. In addition to settling back into school routines, children should sign up for new sports, dance, or music classes that may have been disrupted by the hurricanes. Also, lost or damaged toys or special belongings should be replaced, if they haven't been already.
If families cannot return to their hometowns, it's important that children remain in contact with family and friends from whom they have been disconnected. Today's technology can make this easy. Even if families don't own a computer, children can e-mail friends and family from schools and public libraries. Online mentor and pen pal programs are also available.
The road to recovery could be long and arduous, but I have faith in the ability of the children affected by Katrina and Rita to bounce back emotionally to some sense of normalcy. Children have an amazing resilience, perhaps more so than adults. But all of us must commit to serving as links for these children between the old and the new in their lives, and to give them the necessary supports for recovery.
A year before Katrina, a series of hurricanes hit Florida, destroying hundreds of homes in its path, just as Hurricane Andrew had done a decade earlier. Some reports are that, more than a year later, many of these earlier hurricane victims continue to live in trailers, struggling to get back on their feet. Will we see the same struggles among Katrina's victims one, two, or three years from now? Perhaps, but even if families are continuing to rebuild, I hope we maintain the supports they will need to retrieve at least some of the scattered pieces of their lives and reestablish a semblance of community, leaving their children with a greater sense of security.
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