Franklin Elementary School looks like any other in New Orleans, surrounded by shotgun homes and a small playground where once colorful ladders and slides have faded and weathered under years of happier memories. Just inside the gray, two-story building is a place where the children who survived Hurricane Katrina re-visited the terrors that come with surviving the storm.
“Class stops every time it rains,” one teacher told me in 2007. “They’re scared the storm’s coming again. The children hide under their desks and cry.”
It wasn’t hard to imagine those little faces – strained, tear-strewn, looking for comfort – in a city that has proven to have its share of mental health breakdownsfollowing one of the worst cataclysms in U.S. history. One social worker with the United Way of Greater New Orleans – a key CWS partner in our response – told me that mental health care was (in 2007) the city’s “ticking time bomb” and was likely to “cause major problems that will impede recovery.”
Where the mind went, the body – unfortunately for many – followed. The Rev. Charles Duplessis, a minister in the city’s Lower 9th Ward, presented to a room full of my colleagues in disaster response just a couple of years after the storm. He began by showing a series of photos of his relatives post mortem – lying in repose, all from heart attacks following Katrina.
Standing between an ancient green chalkboard and a cluttered desk, I totally believed the teacher. Through tears, she told me about the children she adored and didn’t know how else to help, other than by providing them safety and comfort when Katrina’s ghost winds stirred in their young minds. She gave them space and time to relive the disaster every time it rained.
That is not to say the kids, or many other survivors, exist in grief alone. One of the things that makes New Orleans its colorful, rich, vibrant, resilient self is the determination it brings to any adversity. After all, not just any stock could take root in the briny marshes and alluvial plains where the Mississippi spills into the Gulf and build a city of renowned art and culture. It takes a toughness and persistence that can withstand even wars (thanks, Andrew Jackson) and a spirit that smiles, carries a po’ boy and warmly greets anyone with a smile.
Recovering from Katrina is a different kind of war, fought block by block, house by house and mind by mind. It’s not over by any means but there have been strides. Franklin school devoted considerable resources into helping the children under their care return to normalcy, or as closely to it as possible. We, as CWS, worked with the German NGO Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe to provide CWS Kits, teacher supplies, books and computers as part of our comprehensive response. We knew that if those kids were to have any shot at returning to normal, school had to feel like … normal. It had to feel like school, where tears could flow and laughter could echo, often in equal measure.
It’s been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina pushed seawater and heartache into the New Orleans we love. A decade since the 17th street levee gave way and the Gulf surged over Highway 90 like an angry, vengeful monster. Ten years since the Industrial Canal became a sieve for a city’s backwash, and being from the Lower 9 didn’t mean anything to anyone outside the 504 area code.
I was fortunate enough to have a love affair with New Orleans and the Gulf Coast long before, during and after Hurricane Katrina. I’ve been able to watch the scenes along the I-10 corridor change from modest roofs to blue-tarps and back again. It is my favorite part of America because it is so unique: in culture, in life, in geography (New Orleans sits below sea level like a pearl in an earthen saucer, which contributed to Katrina’s destruction). Yet what I think about now, when I get the itch for a muffaletta, a cold Dixie and the sway of Spanish Moss, isn’t all etoufee and l’aissez and absinthe at Jean Lafitte’s.
It’s impossible for me not to think about the kids of Franklin School, who survived the attic searches and the Superdome and Brownie’s “heckuva job.”
I wonder if their rain ever stopped.
Matt Hackworth is Director of Marketing and Communications at CWS.