Children of Katrina: The Lost Years

NEW ORLEANS, La. — They were children and teens, their lives disrupted by death and decimation, and even the loss of the simplest things.

For Shannon Lafferre, it was Scooby, a hermit crab, newly purchased on a trip with her father to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. For others it was baby books, photos, treasured gifts, all lost to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. For thousands more, it was school, health care, nutrition and the social-safety networks they had known all their lives.

“I cried and cried and cried about that hermit crab, and my grandma actually yelled at me because my house was gone,” said Lafferre, now 23 and still living in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

When Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in August 2005, it laid bare the flaws in the nation’s disaster infrastructure. It also inspired new research into how disasters affect children, a group that had never been extensively studied.

“It’s very traumatic for a child to lose their possessions, routines, friends and familiar surroundings,” said Alice Fothergill, professor of sociology at the University of Vermont and co-author of the book “Children of Katrina.”

Flooding inundated 80% of New Orleans. Water levels up to 20 feet left thousands trapped in their homes or on rooftops, hopeless with no idea when help would arrive. Some families lost everything.

Shannon Lafferre still misses the childhood mementos she lost in Katrina, and she has felt the loss more keenly since her daughter was born. “I don’t even know what I looked like as a baby,” Lafferre said. “I wonder if she looks like me when I was a baby, but I don’t know, because I don’t get to look back at those pictures.” (Ellen O’Brien/News21)

Lafferre was 9 when Katrina’s storm surges overwhelmed Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. She had one question as her mother surveyed their ruined home: What happened to Scooby?

“I wasn’t allowed to be upset over the things that I lost, like my teddy bear and my hermit crab,” Lafferre said. “They thought that I was stupid to cry over the things that I lost. I was like, ‘I’m 9 years old, though. That was my pet.’”

Fothergill’s co-author on “Children of Katrina,” Lori Peek, is now the director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. The pair spent seven years interviewing children affected by the storm.

“People in their lives might think they’re more resilient, so there’s this idea that kids don’t know what’s going on, or they’re OK,” Fothergill said. “It’s amazing how many adults told us, ‘The kids are bouncing back,’ and then how many kids told us that they didn’t talk to their parents about what was going on because they didn’t want to stress them out.”

Disaster researchers weren’t the only ones paying more attention to children after Katrina. In 2007, the Bush administration formed the National Commission on Children and Disasters, which in 2010 released a full list of recommendations for future protocols.

In 2015, five years after the commission’s report, the aid and advocacy organization Save the Children revealed in its annual U.S. Disaster Report Card that 79% of the commission’s recommendations had not been fulfilled.

Jaimie Cummings sits with her mother, Sharon, in their new home in New Orleans, where they live with their dog, Princeton. The pair returned to New Orleans 13 years after Katrina forced them to evacuate. (Ellen O’Brien/News21)

Jaimie Cummings’ life in New Orleans’ Third Ward was unstable long before Hurricane Katrina. After her grandfather died in 2004, Cummings, 14, and her mother, Sharon Cummings, were functionally homeless. They lived with one of her mother’s friends.

Cummings’ father was away getting treatment for addiction; her mom also had been an addict. Cummings had been kicked out of 10th grade for “failing and fighting.”

“Say recovery takes a year,” Fothergill said. “If you’re 35, a year is a long, awful time. But if you’re 9, a year is a huge deal. If you miss a year, you can’t necessarily get that back.”

In Ocean Springs, Lafferre, her mother and her two siblings had moved into a new house just two weeks before Katrina. After years of living with grandparents, the newly remodeled house was the first place they called their own.

“We weren’t able to keep anything in the house. It was all destroyed,” Lafferre said.

She and her siblings spent three weeks at an aunt’s house in Jackson, where they had evacuated with their grandparents. But Katrina slammed Jackson, too. Much of the city was without power and running water for nearly a month.

Jaimie Cummings and her mother moved back to New Orleans last year. “We always knew that eventually we would be back in New Orleans, we just didn’t know how soon,” Cummings said. (Ellen O’Brien/News21)

“We ate cold SpaghettiOs out of the can for three weeks,” Lafferre recalled. “We got to use the toilet, but we just had to dump water in it as we went. … We used oil lanterns for light. And we all just slept in the living room, piled up in the living room and slept on the floor, because it was so hot.”

Lafferre’s mother stayed behind for her job as a clerk for the Gulfport Police Department, which was running a shelter for the families of officers and other residents. After bringing her children back from Jackson, they lived in the shelter for two weeks before moving to Indiana.

Lafferre considers her time in Indiana, when she was in third grade, her best year. But when the family returned to Ocean Springs one year later, they found their house full of mold and almost destroyed.

“There was nothing else to do but just cry because it was just trashed. It wasn’t home,” Lafferre said.

They lived in a FEMA trailer in their yard, eating ramen noodles and beans from Red Cross meals. The FEMA trailers later were found to have elevated levels of formaldehyde, which can cause nausea and respiratory issues and may be linked to cancers.

“We were constantly at the hospital with respiratory infections and viruses,” Lafferre said. “No one ever really asked how we felt, or what it was like going through that. They figured, I guess, that we could handle it. We had to deal with it.”

As Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast, Shannon Lafferre’s mother stayed behind in Ocean Springs while Shannon was sent to stay with her grandparents in Jackson, Mississippi. With a daughter of her own, Lafferre said she could never imagine making the same choice her mom did. “I’d be like, y’all can kiss it. I’m going with my kid,” she said. (Ellen O’Brien/News21)

The 2010 report by the National Commission on Children and Disasters described children as “more often an afterthought” in disaster planning. The team of pediatricians, lawyers and public policy experts detailed 81 recommendations aimed at closing critical gaps in the needs of children.

The recommendations ranged from improving the capability of emergency medical services to transport pediatric patients to codifying childcare as an essential disaster recovery service to funding disaster preparedness in schools and child welfare agencies.

In New Orleans, Jaimie Cummings wasn’t able to evacuate. After the storm, she sheltered with her mom, uncle and her uncle’s girlfriend for five days in her uncle’s second story apartment.

“I mean, we were kind of used to not having too much. You do what you got to do to survive,” Cummings said. They bathed with bottled water and baby wipes, and cooked the meat her uncle got from local stores.

Coast Guard officers in helicopters had been dropping supplies – until the day they told them the family had to leave. The water had started to stink. Cummings looked down at the drowned city as the helicopter flew them away.

In Port Barre, Louisiana, residents complain about “abandoned” FEMA trailers that have sat just off a busy highway since Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast 14 years ago. FEMA says the trailers don’t belong to the agency, but after use in disasters, many trailers are auctioned off by the General Services Administration. Private buyers can bid on the units online, which could explain this eyesore in Port Barre. (Stacy Fernández/News21)

“You see flags on top of buildings and ‘Help Me’ written out on top of buildings,” Cummings recalled. “That’s all you literally saw. I mean, it was more water than anything.

“But honestly, I was happy because I was leaving. Because this right here is … I can’t do this no more, all this water. I can’t.”

They went to Reese Air Force base in Lubbock, Texas, and from there, flew to Cummings’ aunt’s house in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where they lived for “eight long months.”

“I wanted to go home … but there was no way for us to go. You know, sure, Mom was getting a check, but we had to pay to live where we were. How could we find somewhere to live or go back home?”

In 2006, Cummings’ father found them a place to live in Bogalusa, Louisiana.

“I remember my daddy dropping the keys in my mama’s hand, and my mom was literally like shaking and crying just like, ‘Thank you, Jesus,’” Cummings said. “I’m just smiling and grinning like, ‘Yes, we got our own’ because we didn’t have our own place, even before the storm.”

Megann Jones and her boyfriend, Ryan Becker, both lost their childhood homes to Hurricane Katrina. After the storm, he said, his parents bought a Nintendo Game Cube to keep him and his brother busy. “I was super easy to distract as a kid,” Becker recalled. “They really tried their best to just make us not worry about it, not focus on it. But it always comes up.” (Ellen O’Brien/News21)

They returned to New Orleans just last year.

As a teenager, Cummings doesn’t remember receiving a lot of outside help.

“It was never that type of conversation,” Cummings said. “Actually, it was like, ‘OK, you lived; you good. You survived. You should be happy’.”

The 2015 Save the Children report analyzed the commission’s recommendations. Of the 81 recommendations, only 17 had been met. Forty-four were still in progress, and 20 had not been addressed at all.

“We took some of the nation’s experts and put them on this commission and said, ‘What should we be doing for kids and a disaster?’” Fothergill said. “Do we have enough pediatric care? No. Do we have enough ways to transport kids? No. Do we have plans to have extra social workers in schools? No. So the list of the things we didn’t do is very long.”

Children make up almost a quarter of the nation’s population, but Save the Children found that less than 0.1% of federal emergency preparedness grants have gone toward measures for children’s safety.

Marrio Mathews grew up in New Orleans, one of six children. He turned 18 in a shelter in Texas, days after Hurricane Katrina.

“For all intents and purposes, we were poor and destitute,” Mathews said of his childhood.

The New Orleans Katrina Memorial at Charity Hospital Cemetery was built in 2007 and includes a meditation space and graves for the bodies of unidentified people who died in the hurricane and subsequent flooding. The “Scrap House” is a downtown New Orleans memorial to Hurricane Katrina built by artist Sally Heller. (Ellen O’Brien/News21)

He and his family stayed in their home during the storm but later were evacuated to the Reunion Arena in Dallas. Mathews now lives in Seattle; he has been back to New Orleans only twice in 14 years.

The first trip time was less than a year after Katrina. Mathews had hoped to find his two best friends. He didn’t find either.

Eventually, he graduated from high school in Fort Worth. As he waited to receive his diploma, Mathews said, “I remember thinking to myself … the people that I thought I would be spending this moment with were not here.”

“Suddenly my spirit didn’t feel right,” he said. “Everything just fell out of place … I remember that’s when the nightmares started.”

Megann Jones’ family evacuated before Katrina hit. Her family was able to rebuild.

“There were so many little things I hadn’t thought about,” Jones said. “And when I came back, just realizing like, ‘Oh, that piece of me is missing. Oh, yeah that one, too. Oh, yeah, that’s another thing that I don’t have any more. What happened to that thing? I might’ve put it somewhere. Oh, yeah, Katrina.’”

Jones describes her life in terms of “before and after.”

“I think about it in some way every day, or at least the pre- and post-Katrina eras,” Jones said. “Visually, I kind of picture a timeline, and there’s this huge red line. That was Katrina.”

Findings from the Save the Children’s report suggests federal and state agencies still are not equipped to help children after a disaster.

“To date, there is no presidential strategy on children and disasters, and the federal government has largely declined to formally classify children’s needs as a distinct priority area in disaster planning,” the report read.

“I never want to feel that way again,” Jones said. “More importantly, I never want my kids to feel that way again, whenever I have kids.”

News21 reporters Ellen O’Brien and McKenzie Pavacich contributed to this report.

Sophie Grosserode is a John and Patty Williams Fellow, Katie Hunger is a Myrta J. Pulliam Fellow, Ellen O’Brien is an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation Fellow, and McKenzie Pavacich is a Hearst Foundation Fellow.

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