Missing, Then Found
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita left the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) with a massive project on its hands--locate the 5,192 children reported to NCMEC as missing or displaced. The task took six months. On March 16, NCMEC made its final family reunification when 4-year-old Cortez Stewart was able to see her mother and siblings for the first time since the family's evacuation from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
Last September, just one week after Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, NCMEC established the Katrina Missing Persons Hotline (888/544-5475), logging more than 34,000 calls related to separated families and missing persons. The agency received reports of 4,710 children missing or displaced in Louisiana, 339 in Mississippi, and 39 in Alabama. After Rita struck three weeks later, another 28 children were reported missing or displaced in Louisiana, and 76 in Texas. All but 12 of the more than 5,000 were found alive and living with relatives, family friends, or other adults, according to the Associated Press.
"I can't say there aren't a few children who 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," Bob O'Brien, Director of NCMEC's missing children division, told the Associated Press.
NCMEC worked with a cadre of organizations to locate the children, including the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the network of state missing child clearinghouses, the FBI, state and local law enforcement agencies, children's protective service agencies, Project Angel Flight, the American Red Cross, and media outlets.
At its peak, NCMEC's website recorded 10 million-20 million hits per day from 220 countries, far surpassing its average 1 million hits per day.
In the case of Cortez Stewart, the little girl was staying with her godmother, Felicia Williams, when they became separated from Cortez's mother, Lisa Stewart, and her five other children. As families evacuated New Orleans, Cortez and Williams headed east to Atlanta, and Lisa and her family headed west to Houston. For months, Stewart and Williams tried unsuccessfully to locate one another. Finally, NCMEC located information about Williams through her previous employer and, with help from the U.S. Postal Service, was able to obtain a proper address and phone number for her in Georgia.
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