Some moments in life are unforgettable. For me, the experience of evacuating from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina with my two young children and pup is one of those moments. Katrina became a marker in the life of our family. We used to talk about the timeline of our experiences in terms of “before Katrina” or “after Katrina.” While our home only sustained significant wind damage but no flooding, we witnessed firsthand the considerable tragedy across the city.
My husband is a Coast Guard pilot and was part of the rescue efforts immediately after the storm. As a young mother and teacher, I was focused on setting up a temporary home in San Antonio, TX. I had very little information on how long we would be living in Texas, whether my house was destroyed, what would happen to my teaching job and salary, and how long I would be apart from my husband. The uncertainty combined with the sudden nature of the disaster was, at times, almost too much to bear. I spent hours watching the news showing pictures of people on roofs trying to survive the flooding and the helicopters bravely swarming the airspace to save as many people as possible.
After two months, in October, we were able to return to the city once electricity was restored to our area on the west side of the river. Imagine a home in the deep heat of a New Orleans summer, closed, with no electricity or air conditioning. Imagine a refrigerator and freezer in that house with food left behind. Imagine thousands of those! Imagine wind and water damage and destroyed backyards, sheds, patios, and plants. We returned to that scene, and we were by far one of the lucky ones! We focused on cleaning out our home for several weeks, installing a blue FEMA tarp over a damaged roof, burning the left-behind branches and fallen trees in our yard, and attempting to find food and water. We were grateful for organizations that sent volunteers to cook, assisted with cutting down trees, and did various other tasks.
Through the experiences of Katrina and the subsequent return to school, I learned how essential community and belonging are in our human experience. Healing from trauma requires relationships and grace. Our society does not always prioritize the humanity in each of us, and we must learn to renew our focus on these key needs as we enter school this fall.
Back to school
Later in October, our local charter school determined they were ready to open back up. I remember arriving as a teacher that day in the gym, gathering for the first time to learn how this new opening would take place. I remember the six children who arrived with eager faces, ready to try to find normalcy—only to find a relatively empty school and so many of their friends missing from their seats. I remember my own children as they felt both happy to be back at home and sad that so many friends did not return. The aftermath of Katrina was devastating, and it impacted everything. The instability that many children and adults felt was significant.
After the initial emergency passed and life seemed to settle into a routine, the stress remained. Residual trauma existed from the variety of experiences related to evacuation, loss of home, loss of family, fear for family members and friends who were left behind, anxiety for those putting their own lives at risk to save others, and the exhaustion from returning to the reality of trying to rebuild. Stress became a constant, and when the pressure continues over long periods, the brain and body are impacted.
Children are particularly affected by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and natural disasters can cause long-term mental health challenges for children. ACEs include abuse (physical, sexual, or emotional), neglect, losing a parent (death, divorce, incarceration), being exposed to domestic violence or community violence, having a parent with mental illness, and having a member of the household who abuses drugs or alcohol. Death, violence, or mental illness were all consequences of the hurricane’s traumatic events and the subsequent flooding.
Community is healing
The good news is that positive childhood experiences (PCEs) are shown to build a protective barrier around children and can help them build resilience and protect against the long-term impact of ACEs. As the school opened in October after the hurricane and in the middle of the immediate clean-up of the city, teachers had a great mantle of responsibility:
- to be a caring, supportive adult;
- to create safe environments;
- to provide space to rebuild supportive friendships;
- to develop a sense of belonging for everyone in the school community; and
- to talk about the hurricane sharing feelings and experiences.
During the months after our return to school in New Orleans, there were multiple opportunities to build connections with those who returned. I remember the mornings when we invested our time in simply sharing our thoughts and feelings with each other. As the weeks passed, children opened up more about the trauma they experienced during the storm, the evacuation, and the months of uncertainty. Several children lost family members or were still living separated from loved ones. Others knew neighbors or friends who did not survive.
The beauty of sharing these stories and our ongoing, shifting emotions was that we built connections with each other and we all knew that what we were experiencing was acceptable and to be expected. Hearing about what others endured gave us space to provide extra grace and patience when a particular day did not go exactly as planned. We felt a strong sense of community. It’s always lovely to spend time each day in a place where you know you belong.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all of us, and the instability, uncertainty, mental illness, death, and loss that many have felt could have a particular impact on children. As we continue through new variants, never-ending changes in guidance plans for opening school, and discussions about vaccinations, we must also find ways to build protective factors around ourselves and the children we influence each day.
Educators, leaders, policy designers, and politicians must prioritize not only the physical safety of our students, but also their emotional safety. Schools must embrace their community and commit the time and resources to build connections, create belonging, prioritize mindful practices, create space for sharing experiences, support children as they make new friendships, connect families, and structure the day to help them feel in control and safe to learn. Discipline must be based on trauma-informed practices for all students, and teachers need space to breathe and rest.
This moment is a grand opportunity for our country to step back and to re-prioritize what truly matters. Learning should be joyful, and schools should feel safe. Instead of focusing on the deficit of learning lost last year, let’s build upon the new things we all learned, such as prioritizing our well-being above the achievement of medals or high scores. We have witnessed many folks bravely share their fears and difficult experiences, and the mental health impact of those. Let’s give each other overwhelming acceptance, understanding, grace, support, and a sense of belonging. Let’s learn from researchers, past experiences, and through the example of others and, this school year, let’s prioritize the well-being of our children above all else.
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