It's been almost seven years since Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures devastated the city. Today, puddles standing in low places are more likely to provide fun for kids in rain boots than any real danger. As memories of 2005 fade, it's easy for families to let the summer months lapse without re-examining their disaster plans.
"For better or for worse, there is a lack of institutional memory for hurricanes," says Dr. Douglas Walker, clinical director of Mercy Family Center, a behavioral health clinic in Algiers. "With the specter of the 'Big One' rapidly fading, many young children have never experienced the disruption [caused by an] evacuation. That unpreparedness, coupled with a child's youth and impressionability, can make for potentially long-lasting psychological trauma if he or she is not adequately prepared."
There are ways parents can mitigate their children's disaster and evacuation experiences, minimize or prevent damage and even transform the situation into a positive learning experience. Parents can initiate many of these measures well before a serious threat arises.
Many families already have mapped out a disaster plan, says Kay Wilkins, CEO of the Southeast Louisiana Chapter of the Red Cross. She recommends parents sit down with their children and explain what causes a hurricane, what damage may result, what the family will do to stay safe, and where they'll go if they need to evacuate.
"Reassure them that you have a plan and that you are in control of the situation," Wilkins says. "It's OK to share that you have fears and anxieties too, so they feel that they're not alone."
Walker suggests giving young children a few small but key preparation tasks. "Involve them in something like taking down or securing outdoor furniture," he says. These responsibilities will help them feel prepared and show they are an important part of the family's defense plan. Preemptive acts performed as a family, such as taping windows, making a list of emergency contacts or packing family photo albums, also afford children an opportunity to voice concerns or ask questions. "Pay attention to anything specific you think might be bothering them and be sure to address it calmly and honestly," Walker says.
In addition to the family disaster kit, have your child prepare a backpack or tote bag with a few things they want to have with them if there is an extended evacuation. The Red Cross spearheads a campaign in which volunteers and local schoolchildren silkscreen pillowcases with a list of things they might need. It serves as a written reminder, when things get hectic, of what you might need while away from home. Books, magazines, games, playing cards, stuffed animals, movies and photographs of friends and family are welcome distractions during a long car trip and are comforting reminders of home. Walker recommends parents stow an extra stash of toys and games out of sight to dole out over a longer period; small surprises and something different to do helps stave off boredom.
One of children's biggest concerns is the fate of their pets. Talk honestly with kids about what preparations have been made for pets — microchipping in case they get lost, taking them with you, boarding them in a safe place, having them stay with a family member or friend — and let the children help prepare.
"Have them take a photograph of the pet with the family, write down contact information on an index card, and tape those things to the back of the kennel," she says. Children will feel less anxious knowing they will reconnect with their pet.
At all times during a disaster situation, it's important to limit how much media disaster coverage young people see. Many kids, especially 3- to 10-year-olds, may be unable to correctly process the barrage of images, video clips and conflicting information inherent in news reports of an unfolding disaster in which there is significant property damage and loss of life.
"A 5- or 6-year-old is going to look at a picture on TV of a hurricane hitting, and he's going to think it's happening right then — again — in real time," Wilkins says. "It can be terrifying for them." Turn off the TV, she suggests, and make sure children don't overhear snippets of adult conversations they might misinterpret.
Teenagers, however, may find some access to media a helpful coping mechanism. "With teens, it's all about staying in contact with their friends," Walker says. Facebook and Twitter can give them the lowdown on their friends' evacuation plans and how they're dealing with the situation, lending solidarity to the experience. Project Fleur-de-Lis, a Mercy Family Center program of mental health care and support for children post-Katrina, has an active Twitter account; linking teenagers with social media support systems like these can help them feel connected, informed and in control.
While evacuated, watch for signs of deeper disturbance in kids. "If a child gets very anxious when a parent leaves the room or [the child] becomes unnaturally afraid of the weather, he or she might be particularly upset," Wilkins says. Regression in very young children — bedwetting or not talking, for example — may signal the need for medical help. "In pre-adolescents, irritability and whining is an indicator," Walker says. "Teenagers may complain of physical aches and pains."
Wilkins and other Red Cross shelter workers bring in mental health professionals to help manage such issues among evacuees. On an uglier note, Walker warns parents that children who are in frantic, stressful or disorganized situations in unfamiliar surroundings are especially vulnerable to predators. "As parents, we know our children best," he says. "We have to be vigilant and use our brains, not always our emotions."
Above all, make your children feel secure in their future. Emphasize the importance of the nonmaterial elements of your family dynamic and remind them that your group can weather the storm, say Wilkins and Walker, who both are parents.
"I remember shortly before evacuating [for Hurricane Gustav], sitting with my sons and looking at our house," Walker says. "I told them, 'When we come back, this house may be underwater, but that's OK. It's just a house.'"
He admits it was a "scary conversation," but one he — and his sons —needed to have, in case the hurricane became a disaster. There's security in having a parent say that no matter what happens, the family will be OK.