This was the dream shared by the 2005-2006 kindergarten class at New Orleans West KIPP Academy in Houston, Texas—children who had just fled everything familiar in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Five years later, for many of Katrina’s children and families home is still not back to the way it was. New roadblocks keep appearing on the road to recovery. As the recent report The New Orleans Index at Five puts it, “It has been often said that New Orleanians are resilient. They have to be after being dealt three crises in five years—Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaches, the Great Recession, and now the [BP] oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico . . . New Orleans is in the throes of post-disastersrecovery.” The city’s resilience is still strong, but challenges remain.
The Children’s Defense Fund has been on the ground in New Orleans since immediately after the storm operating CDF Freedom Schools® programs, which we first opened as an emergency response to the health and mental health risk encounters many children were facing. The CDF Freedom Schools program continues to provide summer and after-school enrichment for children in New Orleans, and more than 30 CDF Freedom Schools sites are serving children across the Gulf region. Education is one of the sectors where there has been some progress since the storm. After more than 100 of the city’s 128 public schools were damaged or destroyed by Katrina, new public school choices have emerged that include more public charter schools than any other school system in the country. So far, these charters are achieving better results than the largely failing system that existed before the storm. But many of Katrina’s children are still suffering from effects of the original displacement, and their families, neighborhoods, and support networks will likely never be put back into place exactly the way they were.
Studies show the region still may not be prepared to protect children in another disaster. Despite the fact that more than 5,000 children were separated from their families and listed as missing or displaced after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a new report issued by Save the Children found that many Louisiana child care centers and public schools still don’t have adequate plans in place for evacuating students, notifying parents about their children’s location, caring for children with special needs, or taking other precautions during an emergency. In this, Louisiana isn’t alone: Only twelve states met Save the Children’s standards. We must do better in taking lessons learned and planning for the future to protect all children.
Dr. Cathy Grace, the Children’s Defense Fund’s Director of Early Childhood Development Policy, recently co-authored two new resources that focus on what we can do to help young children cope after a traumatic event and how we can plan now to protect them in the future. Preparing for Disaster walks early childhood program administrators through the basic plans they should make to safely care for children in an emergency, including plans for sheltering in place, relocating off-site, and keeping emergency contact information available and accessible at all times. After the Crisiscontains book suggestions, discussion starters, and other activities for teachers to help young children who have been through many kinds of trauma, including natural disasters, epidemics, or the death of a loved one, begin to heal. These companion books, based on hard-learned lessons from the Katrina disaster, are valuable resources for everyone entrusted with the physical and emotional well-being of our youngest and most vulnerable children.
Tools like these can help adults prepare for the next time and help children who have already lived through trauma continue healing now—including Katrina’s children, whom we must not forget.