Young Victims

Young Victims

We’re sitting on the floor in a circle, and the children are sharing stories about the drawings they’ve just completed on the theme “what I thought was happening to me during the danger.” This is the heart of a 15-session program I’m implementing with children impacted by Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.

One girl shares that she had to swim out of her house with her family, and she thought she was going to die. A boy tells us that he was hit in the head with debris when the water was rising, was pinned against a car, and was separated from his family. A stranger rescued him. The children continue around the circle, sharing their artwork and stories of pets forever lost, crowded life in a trailer, and friends moved away.

The children are participating in a program implemented by Save the Children on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama called Psychosocial Structured Activities, developed by the Boston Trauma Center. The 15-session program takes children in classrooms and after-school and summer programs through art, drama, movement, and play-therapy activities designed to help them reestablish a sense of stability, safety, and normalcy in a world gone topsy-turvy.

In Mississippi, the coastal communities were hit by an unprecedented 40-foot storm surge that traveled ten miles inland. Their communities were eviscerated. It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to drive down Highway 90 along the coast of Mississippi; it was once a beachfront casino, resort, and shopping nucleus, and is now rubble. Since most folks here had hurricane insurance and not flood insurance (not recommended here pre-Katrina, as this was not a flood plain) rebuilding is slow and frustration levels are high. People shake their heads, still marveling at the destruction—miles and miles of rubble and debris. People are living in trailers on their destroyed property, on cruise ships, in tents, in crowded relatives’ homes. Bridges will take years to rebuild, traffic on detour roads is bumper-to-bumper, grocery stores are over-crowded because those left standing are serving too many.

I’m training teachers and counselors to implement the program with their students, and in the process doing some group therapy. Their teachers’ stories are difficult, inspirational, heartbreaking. A New Orleans teacher talks about coming back to see her house, and instead finding another on her property—hers floated across the canal and she can see it on the far bank. A Biloxi man tells of lacking the finances to evacuate after so many other evacuations this summer, and of having to climb onto his roof with his uncle while the water was rising rapidly. He’s still incredulous that Biloxi had to wait for five days for FEMA relief to arrive. He talks of breaking into a fire hydrant for drinking water, and talks of neighborhood barbecues hastily organized in order to eat the only salvageable food left—the meat that was quickly rotting. He talks of the filth in which Biloxi lived for those days—says he’s never looked so bad in his life—like a refugee. Heads nod in agreement. A New Orleans man talks about displacement in Houston, and the indignities of having to use food stamps for the first time in his life. A Gulfport social worker talks of the humiliation her community felt at having National Guardsmen standing with rifles at food tents—as if needing handouts wasn’t bad enough, now community residents were assumed to be criminals as well because of the misfortune they’d endured. I hear a story of a man who made it out of New Orleans to his mother’s house in a suburb. He was shaking, looking for his key to her house, when a National Guardsman approached, held him at gunpoint, and said if he didn’t find the key on the first try he was dead. The man found his key.

The Psychosocial Structured Activities program takes children through 15 community-building sessions on progressive themes including safety and control, self-esteem, thoughts and reactions during danger, resource identification and coping skills, and future planning. Adults training to implement the program with their students experience this same emotional and cognitive progression. Difficult stories are shared, and then we move on to identifying resources and coping skills, and to planning for the future. A Biloxi woman shares that when her family beachfront hotel was destroyed, former customers contacted her and asked what she needed. She replied that she needed everything, and within the week she had a free trailer, fully stocked with food, water, clothing and bedding. Others share stories of giving and receiving aid to and from others, finding silver linings in the horrors of Hurricane Katrina.

The children, too, find silver linings. They participate enthusiastically in the cooperative games we play with them, share what they appreciate about each other during the sessions, and during the final session, they draw their vision of their rebuilt communities. I see lots of animal shelters and pet stores, malls, McDonalds, and arcades. The children smile, and play with the parachute one last time.

A school nurse tells me that many of the kids about whom she was worried seem less withdrawn now, and their concentration and school performances are improving. One girl whose two best friends moved away after the storm has made some new friends through the program, and is seen smiling again. A boy who sat outside the circle with his hood drawn over his face began to participate, playing the games and even drawing and sharing his stories. A girl who had begun bedwetting after the storm has made it through a week without any incident. A father tells us that his son brought home one of his drawings, facilitating their first family discussion about the impact of Katrina on their family. And a parent writes a note about what emotional good the program seems to be doing for her daughter. These are the first steps of recovery.

A 2001 graduate of the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, Yael Hoffman was project manager of the Michigan Center for Public Health Preparedness from 2003 to January 2006. Prior to that, she was a clinical social worker in the UM Health System's Psychiatric Emergency Service. In addition to an MPH, Hoffman holds an MSW, a BA in communications, and a BFA in musical theater, all from the University of Michigan.

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On the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast, the road to recovery is neither quick nor easy, especially for children. Yael Hoffman, MPH '01, tells how she and others have helped the storm's youngest victims come to grips with what happened.