Littlest Victims: The luckiest ones are merely displaced. The unlucky still can't find their parents. For every one, the trauma will last a lifetime. By Barbara Kantrowitz and Karen Breslau
Sept. 19, 2005 issue - First, the ferocious wind ripped off huge chunks of their roof. Then huge waves surged through the Lower Ninth Ward and forced Lisa Moore and Larry Morgan and their 10 children into the broiling heat of the attic. For four days, the Moores struggled to survive on a couple of cans of fruit *censored*tail. Larry painstakingly squeezed drops of juice into the mouths of the youngest children, who were withering from dehydration. The desperate parents worked out a system: one remained in the attic with the kids while the other stood on the remains of the roof, waving a towel to attract the helicopters they could see on the horizon. "We hollered and hollered," says Lisa. "Nobody stopped." On Aug. 31, when a chopper finally hovered overhead, the family faced a nightmarish dilemma. "I can only take five," their rescuer shouted. The four youngest children, especially 2-year-old Irielle, were growing weaker by the hour, so Lisa and Larry handed them into the sky. Then Larry grabbed 13-year-old O'Neil, sent him up the rope ladder and urgently yelled one last instruction over the roar of the motor: "Look after one another."
And so began an agonizing, all-too-common odyssey along the Gulf Coast last week as many thousands of families struggled to find their way out of Katrina's devastation. Before the storm, New Orleans alone was home to more than 130,000 children. They're all gone now, the human detritus of the storm scattered across the country in Red Cross shelters, churches and the homes of relatives, friends and even generous strangers. The luckier families lost everything—houses, cars, treasured heirlooms—but at least still have each other to hold onto. The less fortunate have had to face the future not knowing whether the people they love most are alive or dead. As of Saturday, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Virginia, which is tracking the whereabouts of the youngest victims of the storm, had received reports of 1,831 missing kids from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Of those, 360 cases had been resolved, the center says, either by reuniting families or locating the children. The fate of the rest was still unclear.
Even if they are found and reunited with their parents, therapists say the children of Katrina could suffer for years from the physical and emotional effects of their trauma. "Kids have lost their homes, their schools, their neighborhoods, connections with friends," says David Fassler, a psychiatrist at the University of Vermont who studies children and disasters. "I would expect to see an increase in anxiety, sleep difficulties, fears." Young children may get clingy or regress to babylike behavior; older children may become depressed and act out. Natural disasters can be particularly tough for kids to handle, experts say. Robin Gurwitch worked with kids after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and is a member of the American Psychological Association's Disaster Response Network. "When you're talking about a man-made disaster, you can get angry at somebody because they bombed the Trade Center or they bombed the Murrah Building," she says. "With a natural disaster, who do you get mad at?"
To struggling families like the Moores, the time and energy to ponder that question is still an unimaginable luxury. As the rescue helicopter disappeared from sight, the rest of their group, which by then included a grandmother and two neighbors who had taken shelter with them, clambered into rescue boats on the churning river that used to be Lizardi Street. "We thought they were going to take us all to the Superdome and we'd meet up there," says Larry. Instead, the chopper carrying O'Neil and the four younger children dropped them off on a freeway bridge in another part of the city. From there, they were transported by bus to the Terrabone Civic Center in Houma, about 60 miles from New Orleans, along with two adult neighbors. For a couple of days, they were all "adopted" by a local family, but they quickly returned to the Terrabone shelter when that family became overwhelmed by the responsibility. On Sunday, the neighbors took off to join relatives in Texas and O'Neil was left alone in charge of Irielle; Larrelle, 5; Larioina, 10, and Leindre, 11. Meanwhile, the boat carrying Lisa and her older children dropped them off near the convention center. Larry and the rest of the family, in the other boat, ended up on a truck that took them to the Superdome. They didn't know when—or if—they would all be together again. At the Superdome, Larry says, "I was just walking around, asking everyone, 'Have you seen my kids?' "
In their temporary shelters, many other families felt the pain of uncertainty just as profoundly as the 140-mile-an-hour winds that tore apart their lives just a few days earlier. Technology provided some comfort. At the Reliant Center and the Astrodome in Houston, local companies donated computers and even reading glasses so evacuees could search dozens of Web sites listing the missing and the found. At the Astrodome, volunteers cheered and rang a cowbell to celebrate an impending reunion. The ultimate goal for everyone was modest: a return to something that could be considered normal. Going to school, even a new school, gave kids a sense of order. It also gave parents a breather—and a chance to plan the next steps in their lives. Wealthier parents sought places in private schools. Over the weekend, a representative of Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire was scheduled to fly down to Houston to interview nine students in the Astrodome before deciding whether to accept them. Other families were at the mercy of local districts, many already overcrowded.
In Texas, officials said they were enrolling 19,000 children displaced by the storm. They were able to waive normal rules, such as proving residency or providing immunization records, because federal law requires a place in class for students who are "homeless." The chance to start again is critical for Kathy Jemison and her daughter, Sarah McClelland, 17. The night before the storm hit, they hurriedly packed up clothes, keepsakes and important papers like their birth certificates and Social Security cards. As the storm bore down on their apartment in Metairie, outside New Orleans, they drove 15 hours to a friend's house in San Antonio. Last week, Sarah began her senior year at San Antonio's MacArthur High School, and Kathy, who worked for a bank in New Orleans, is updating her resume. Sarah's first few days were rocky. She had trouble finding her way around the huge school. At home, she was on the dance team, so a MacArthur counselor told her about her new school's team, but their skill intimidated her. She's trying out other activities to help fit in. "I'm still lost—and it's my third day," she says. "I don't like not knowing anybody."
Making the transition to the new normal will be critical in the next few weeks. "School gives kids structure," says Lynne Tan, a psychiatrist at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y., who treated children whose parents died in the September 11 attacks. "You have adults around to process with the kids: teachers, volunteer parents, school counselors. There are people who can answer questions." In the long run, a kid's psychological fate depends on many factors, says Tan. "You have to take into account genetics, maturity level, the environmental situation prior to the disaster. If you have a more stable parental structure in place before the disaster, then you're probably going to have a better outcome." Although some researchers think the stress of going through trauma may permanently damage developing brains, others say kids are resilient for reasons science can't yet explain.
If any kid has the right stuff to survive Katrina, it's O'Neil Moore. Each day in the shelter, he gathered food, clothing, toys and diapers for his younger brother and sisters. Somewhere along the way, he acquired a giant blue duffel bag that he stuffed with all their new belongings. Irielle recovered from her severe dehydration but refused to let go of her brother and would allow only O'Neil to feed, clothe or change her. Last week the state Department of Social Services, which had been granted emergency custody of the five children, transferred them to a shelter in Baton Rouge. There, social worker Stephanie Gomez called every other shelter in the area, trying to find Lisa and Larry. By this time, Larry and the two children had witnessed inconceivable horrors. "I saw four babies die of dehydration right in front of me," he says. At the convention center, Lisa paced the feces-smeared floor at night, watching over her sleeping daughters. Nearby, she could hear a girl crying as she was raped. "We were all just surviving on a hope and a prayer," she says.
Finally, her branch of the family was transferred to a shelter in Austin, where conditions were much better. Her cell phone started to work again, and there was a message from Larry, telling her that he had made it to the Astrodome. She called back, and within hours Larry and the other kids were on a bus to Austin. But there was still no word from O'Neil and his siblings. In Austin, Lisa gave their names to a volunteer, who entered them into the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's database. Moments later, Lisa was on the phone with Gomez. On Thursday, a network of volunteer pilots called Angel Flight America flew O'Neil and the youngest Moore children from Baton Rouge to Austin. When they landed shortly before midnight, the parents rushed up to the plane and grabbed the kids before they could even touch the tarmac. It was Larry's 45th birthday. They celebrated—together.
With Karen Springen, Vanessa Juarez in San Antonio and William Lee Adams