The vulnerability of children was starkly apparent in Hurricane Katrina, the most disruptive and destructive disaster in modern U.S. history.
A dozen children and youth in Louisiana perished in the disaster. An untold number of children lost loved ones, were orphaned, or were left homeless. Over 5,000 children were reported missing, many of whom were separated from their family members for weeks or even months after the storm. Over 370,000 school-age children were displaced immediately following Katrina, while 160,000 remained dislocated for years.
A new book, Children of Katrina (September 2015; University of Texas Press), is one of the only long-term, multiyear studies of young people following disaster. Sociologists Alice Fothergill of the University of Vermont and Lori Peek of Colorado State University spent seven years after the hurricane interviewing and observing several hundred children and their family members, friends, neighbors, teachers, and other caregivers. In the book, they focus intimately on seven children between the ages of three and eighteen, selected because they exemplify the varied experiences of the larger group.
They find that children followed three different post disaster trajectories -- declining, finding equilibrium, and fluctuating -- as they tried to regain stability. The children's moving stories illuminate how a devastating disaster affects individual health and well-being, family situations, housing and neighborhood contexts, schooling, peer relationships, and extracurricular activities.
This work also demonstrates how outcomes were often worse for children who were vulnerable and living in crisis before the storm.
Drawing on what they learned, Fothergill and Peek clarify what kinds of assistance children need during emergency response and recovery periods, as well as the individual, familial, social, structural factors that aid or hinder children in getting that support.
Among the key insights and policy recommendation in the book are the following:
- 1. Disasters last a long time in the lives of children and youth; there is no end point of recovery, it is a prolonged process and children are following different trajectories. In light of that, we need to provide support, resources, and services to children and their families for a sustained period of time (including counseling, school curriculum, predicable routines, extracurricular opportunities, etc.). Future research should also take this into account.
2. Structural disadvantages mark the experiences of children more than individual resilience traits. We must ensure that children and their families with the fewest resources are able to prepare and recover from disasters (including safe evacuation, housing from temporary shelters to permanent housing, childcare and employment assistance, etc.). Policy and research should examine housing solutions, in particular.
3. Children and youth contribute to disaster preparedness, response, and recovery efforts. They have special talents, skills, and strengths, and they can and do contribute in positive and effective ways across the disaster life cycle. We should recognize, encourage, and support these capabilities (provide avenues for peer contact for child-to-child support, self expression through drama, art, creative writing, journal writing, etc.).
4. Once a disaster strikes, it is too late to lessen children's vulnerability. Planning and preparation for the "next one" needs to happen in advance. Funding and training and policy shifts in all the areas of children's lives (schooling, housing, neighborhood context, etc.) should be a priority. Disasters are inevitable and we need to think ahead if the suffering of children is going to be reduced.