This time of year, 12 years ago, Hurricanes Rita and Katrina wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast. Houston became the refuge of choice for 60,000 people, over half of whom were school-aged youth. The city opened its arms, homes, schools, and churches, while more kept coming and many never left. Three hundred thousand people eventually chose to call this hospitable city their home. These same souls are now going through it all again.
America’s Promise Alliance was on the Gulf Coast for five years after the storms to raise awareness about the needs of the children, to drive collaboration among organizations and individuals, and to help direct resources not only to the physical recovery of children, but also their emotional and social well-being.
We learned a great deal. All children need a variety of opportunities and supports to thrive now and later in life. The needs are felt deeply in marginalized and distressed communities where families are most likely to suffer the long-term effects of the storms.
Recovery takes years. Families will move multiple times, many will never return, unemployment will be staggeringly high, and more than half of the displaced children will display emotional and behavioral difficulties not present before the storm. Post-traumatic stress syndrome often doesn’t peak until three to five years after the trauma has occurred.
Look beyond the headlines and try to imagine what the children are feeling. We won’t know for certain until after Irma leaves her mark, but we can anticipate that up to a million children and youth won’t be going back to their homes, schools, and churches anytime soon. Their learning, nutrition, friendships, and playtime will all be disrupted. Their support systems have literally been washed away.
Hurricanes peel away our illusions of independence. We rely on each other. Our children are relying on us to pave the way for their future, to be caring adults, to provide physical and emotional safety, to ensure a healthy start and an education that prepares them for independence. They also need the opportunity to help others. These are the Five Promises all children need and deserve, especially those who have been exposed to such trauma.
The waters will recede, the rescues will end and the ‘relief and recovery’ will begin with chain saws and bulldozers and helpers from far away. Americans give generously and then America moves on.
We need to keep nurturing, protecting, listening, and supporting these children for years to come. We will be looking for ways to help. Each of us can make a difference one caring adult and one child at a time. Start by sending a message of hope and encouragement to a young person. They are the promise of America and they are counting on us.