It was 13 years ago, in August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc along the U.S. Gulf Coast, leaving 1,833 people dead.
Thankfully, few children died as a result of Hurricane Katrina. But the storm has had a lasting, negative impact on tens of thousands of children who survived, only to suffer serious emotional and developmental consequences for years afterward.
More than 5,000 cases of missing children were reported after Katrina, many separated from their families for weeks, and some for months.4 Hundreds of thousands of children lost their homes and the communities where they grew up. Many lost loved ones and family pets. Countless children witnessed death while wading through or being rescued from rising waters. Thousands of children who were separated from their families and caregivers were rescued and placed in shelters in different cities and states. Many children spent days in unsanitary shelters with insufficient food and water, and where there were many accounts of violence and sexual assaults.5 6
In the days and months following Hurricane Katrina, Save the Children worked tirelessly to protect children from harm. We developed Journey of Hope, a program that helps children and the adults who care for them cope with loss, fear and stress. The evidence-based program also aims to help children become more resilient in the aftermath of a hurricane.
Until recently, Hurricane Katrina was recognized as the most destructive storm in U.S. history. However, with reports out of Florida describing the area as a “war zone,[i]” experts are concerned that Hurricane Michael, just 2 mph short of being classified as a Cat. 5 hurricane when it ripped into the panhandle[ii], will be even more devastating to some coastal communities.
Here’s why: Hurricane Michael’s path impacted some of Florida’s and Georgia’s poorest counties. Poorer families are often hurt hardest by storm’s fury and have more difficulty recovering. What’s more, these inland communities of Florida are less accustomed to dealing with powerful hurricanes.
We already know that 20 of 38 schools in Bay County, Florida have been damaged. “We’ve seen schools that are completely destroyed. Children will be out of school indefinitely,” said, Sarah Thompson, team leader on the ground.
While assessments are still underway, we anticipate a large number of day care, pre-K programs and schools in Hurricane Michael’s path have sustained extensive damage, rendering them uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. The future of thousands of young students remains largely unclear. Child care facilities are essential for getting communities back to normal routines and parents back to work. The loss of these services debilitates the entire community.[iii]
The potential for Hurricane Michael to have a widespread, deep and enduring impact on children’s mental health is great.
When forced to evacuate from their homes, many people – particularly the poor – have no choice but to turn to emergency shelters. Unfortunately, our national sheltering system doesn’t adequately account for the unique needs of children, making them vulnerable to injury and abuse.
Children are only sometimes counted separately from adults in shelter facilities, making it difficult to provide services that meet the specific needs of children and keep them safe. Shelters rarely keep families separated from the rest of the population, making kids vulnerable to abuse, violence and even rape.[iv]
Early reports are that conditions in shelters in and around Panama City are extremely poor. There is limited electricity and no running water, which means displaced children and families are unable to bathe, making an uncomfortable situation unsafe and more likely to spread illness. “These shelters are meant to be temporary, but families we met may be here for a very long time. We have to help make them better,” said Sarah Thompson.
Thanks to the generous support of our donors, Save the Children’s emergency response team is preparing to set up safe play spaces in shelters in the Panhandle’s hardest-hit areas – where children can play, learn and cope – and working to ensure shelter conditions are made safe and accommodating for families.
To learn more about Save the Children’s work to help Hurricane Michael survivors, please visit: savethechildren.org/hurricane-michael.
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4 Still At Risk: U.S. Children 10 Years After Hurricane Katrina