DENHAM SPRINGS, La. — Michelle Parrott’s children hear thunder when there is no storm. When rain does fall, they ask their mother if the floodwaters are rising again.
In flood-ravaged pockets of south Louisiana, mental scars are already showing on the youngest victims of a disaster that prompted more than 30,000 rescues and left an estimated 40,000 homes damaged.
Children who endured harrowing rescues are returning home to a jarring landscape that even their parents can scarcely grasp: Homes filled with ruined possessions need to be quickly gutted. Damaged schools and daycare centers are closed indefinitely. Parents juggling jobs and cleanup work must also line up caretakers for their kids.
Parrott, her husband and her six children, ages 6 to 17, have slept in cars, a shelter and a hotel room in the week since they had to be rescued by boat. The flooding wrecked their home in Livingston Parish, where one official has estimated that three-quarters of the residences are a total loss after more than 2 feet of rain fell in three days.
“The emotional toll on the kids has been heavy. They’re all in a bit of shock and stress and having meltdowns and tantrums,” Parrot said. “Trying to get back into their routine is going to be difficult when we don’t know what the future holds for us.”
Routines are particularly important for her 17-year-old son, Blake, who is autistic and attends special needs classes at one of the many Denham Springs schools damaged in the floods.
“He feels unsafe constantly. He’s had a lot of breakdowns,” she said. “We’ve had trouble getting his medications in. The therapist flooded, so he’s lacking the emotional support he needs from professionals.”
Parrott homeschools her other five children, but she watched more than $10,000 in school materials float away.
“I have to start over,” she said.
Thirteen deaths have been attributed to the storm and its flooding, and nearly 4,000 people remain in shelters.
But signs of recovery emerged Friday.
Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that FEMA will start paying for hotel rooms for storm victims staying in cars, hotels, shelters or their workplaces. A disaster food stamp program will begin Monday. And the state intends to start consolidating shelters this weekend as more of the displaced return home or find other places to stay.
The floods hit just as the school year was starting in many districts, reminiscent of how Hurricane Katrina abruptly ended a New Orleans school year that had barely begun in 2005. With the city under water for weeks and much of its population scattered for months or even years, the first public school didn’t open in New Orleans until three months after the storm as officials tried to revamp a system that was widely considered to be failing long before Katrina.
For most parents in the flood zone this week, patience is their only option. Some school districts, including in East Baton Rouge Parish, are making plans to reopen their doors next week.
But in Livingston Parish, it could take several weeks for some schools to open up.
All told, Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White says 22 of the state’s public schools were so heavily damaged by flooding that they can’t be opened by next week.
Denham Springs High School was in session for six days before the flooding. Andrew Hunter, the school’s band director, said he and his students won’t wait for the school to reopen to resume practicing. Hunter said they plan to meet Thursday in a field next to the school for their first rehearsal since the storms.
“I have seen a lot of firm jaws, ready to get back to work,” Hunter said. “We control how we respond to adversity.”
Amanda Burge, 35, said one of her friends from Denham Springs plans to temporarily enroll her daughter at a school in Covington while they stay there with a relative. Burge said she can’t move her three sons to another district because her husband’s job is rooted here, but they haven’t had time to weigh their options. On Thursday, the couple was racing to clean out their flooded home before mold sets in.
“Everything is gone. School is gone. Home is gone. Church is gone,” said Burge, president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Denham Springs Elementary School.
Her 11-year-old son, Logan, smiled at the prospect of a “second summer.”
“At the same time, I’m starting to miss my teachers and my friends,” he said. “I’m wondering if they’re all OK from the storm.”
Even in crisis mode, Burge made sure Logan didn’t miss his rehearsal for a play at a drama program for kids on Louisiana State University’s campus.
“This is the only normal thing that he gets to do,” she said.
Bonnie Nastasi, a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans specializing in school psychology, said addressing the disruption of children’s lives is as important as helping them with the initial trauma they experienced during the flooding. Many had to be rescued in the darkness of night, plucked from their homes and packed together in crowded shelters.
“Re-establishing the routine of school is going to be important for children. If they can resume normal routines, that helps them to feel more safe and more secure,” Nastasi said.