The Lost Children of Katrina

A decade after the hurricane, New Orleans' community grapples with the effects of missed schooling and mass displacement.

Ten years ago, the Lee family evacuated from New Orleans to a Houston neighborhood so rife with hostility for evacuees that the ice-cream truck refused to stop for them. At the corner store, the clerk threw their money back rather than serve them. Peers called them "refugees," as if they weren’t from this country, and suggested they "swim home" to New Orleans rather than burden Houston, said Devante Lee, who was 11 when Hurricane Katrina hit.

At the new school that Devante’s 14-year-old sister, Cessileh, attended, young New Orleanians regularly fought Houston students. So their mother kept her sons home rather than expose them to harm.

They ended up missing school for an entire year.

"It hurt my mom, us not being in school. At that time, she felt like she’d let us down," said Devine Lee, who was 13. "But she was terrified. They were shooting us out there." Her fears were confirmed when a teen they knew casually from New Orleans was killed in Houston, he said.

Devine, who is outgoing by nature, would spend hours on a nearby basketball court, nurturing dreams of playing professionally. Devante, who is quieter, remembers mostly staying at home, trying to hold onto his New Orleans accent and identity.

An untold number of kids—probably numbering in the tens of thousands—missed weeks, months, even years of school after Katrina. Only now, a decade later, are advocates and researchers beginning to grasp the lasting effects of this post-storm duress. Increasingly, they believe the same lower-income teens who waded through the city’s floodwaters and spent several rootless years afterward may now be helping drive a surging need for GED programs and entry-level job-training programs in the city. It’s no coincidence, they say, that Louisiana has the nation’s highest rate of young adults not in school or working.

Many of the Americans who today lack both jobs and diplomas may have been Katrina-era adolescents, who often suffered such high levels of trauma and instability that learning became nearly impossible. It was "like throwing seeds at cement," said Lisa Celeste Green-Derry, a New Orleans-based education researcher.

A decade ago, the Lees’ mother hadn’t anticipated that her sons would lose an entire school year. The circumstances seemed temporary, just a stopover until New Orleans cleaned and re-opened housing and schools. Then, three months after Katrina, the state of Louisiana announced a complete reconfiguration of New Orleans’ notorious public schools in what then-Governor Kathleen Blanco called "the opportunity of a lifetime."

In justifying the state takeover of the schools, which would later be handed over to charter-school operators, Blanco assumed that most evacuee children had transferred to  superior schools outside of New Orleans. "Parents have new expectations for what schools should be and what they should provide," she said at a presentation announcing the legislation, just a few months after Katrina. "These families will only return home when we can meet these new, and higher, expectations."

Few imagined that the education of so many evacuee children would be disrupted for so long.

About half of Katrina evacuees were said to have hailed from badly devastated New Orleans, many from flood-prone, high-poverty neighborhoods. Most children had attended the city’s public schools, notorious for dilapidated buildings and classes from which fewer than half the students graduated. While some displaced children thrived in better schooling elsewhere, countless others didn’t have an opportunity to settle down: Many low-income New Orleans evacuees spent several years after the storm in nomadic exile, moving among family members’ residences or in search of jobs or housing.

Early on, children’s advocates noted that serial moves and school absences were prevalent. A 2006 study by the Children’s Health Fund and the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, part of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, warned that 20 percent of displaced children were either not enrolled in school or not attending regularly, missing an average of 10 days a month. The families interviewed for the Mailman study had moved an average of 3.5 times by six months after the storm, with some moving as many as nine times. Not surprisingly, evacuee children couldn’t keep up with their studies. Four and a half years later, Mailman researchers found that more than one-third of Katrina’s displaced children were at least one year behind in school for their age.

"It hurt my mom, us not being in school. At that time, she felt like she’d let us down," said Devine Lee, who was 13 at the time. "But she was terrified. They were shooting us out there." (Tyrone Turner)

While disasters are sometimes portrayed as events affecting everyone equally, children from more fragile families are more likely to be traumatized and to recover more slowly, said Lori Peek, a sociologist who co-directs the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis at Colorado State University. After observing 650 displaced New Orleans-area children, Peek and her collaborator Alice Fothergill found that poorer children were more likely to be exposed to Katrina’s floodwaters, resulting in "challenges concentrating in schools, higher anxiety levels, and more behavioral problems."

Similarly, Mailman’s researchers found that evacuee children were more than four times more likely than the average child to show symptoms of serious emotional disturbance, which can stunt kids' ability to advance socially, emotionally, and academically.

Lower-income children were also more likely to be displaced far from their homes, to move often, and to encounter bullying and discrimination, Peek and Fothergill found. "The children whose lives were most disrupted and whose social support systems and family networks were shattered were left with few tools or resources to pick up the pieces," they concluded. Those who conducted Katrina research in the early years wonder what happened to the displaced children they met. Thousands didn’t return, and the population of children in New Orleans dropped by 43 percent between 2000 and 2010.

When the Lee family returned to New Orleans about a year after the storm, several schools had reopened, but much of the system remained in chaos. Devante, who came back first with an aunt, enrolled in a school where classes were held in temporary trailers run by high proportions of interim teachers. He said his campus sometimes shut down for the day without notice.

For thousands of New Orleans schoolchildren, these experiences were the rule, not the exception. "I think 90-percent-plus of my students didn’t learn for a year after Katrina," said Matthew Feigenbaum, a former dean at Renew Accelerated High School, which works with over-age students who have fallen behind.

Despite the missed class time, when they returned to New Orleans the two Lee brothers were placed into the "right" grade for their ages. But Devine said he was unable to focus in an environment where few teachers seemed like they had control of their classrooms. "They were getting run over," he said. Even worse, after missing "a substantial amount of work," Devine was lagging academically. During his junior year in high school, he made a deal with his mom that he’d drop out and work toward his GED.

Researchers and others are trying to understand the impact that the displacement had on kids’ education, a task complicated by evacuee return rates, which are as low as 50 percent in some analyses. This summer, the New Orleans-based Education Research Alliance is slated to release an analysis of how the disruption affected test scores for New Orleans students. But the study will only include Louisiana Department of Education data, according to the alliance’s director, Doug Harris, who said he wasn’t aware of anyone tracking the New Orleans children who didn’t return to school within the state.

Green-Derry, the education researcher, is a New Orleans native who has studied how teacher preparation meets the academic needs of students traumatized by a natural disaster. According to Green-Derry, "systems" are key to uplifting traumatized students. But 10 years ago, she said, New Orleans teens came home to layers of faltering systems: flood-damaged blocks, a school district in flux, and homes with limited adult supervision as parents worked, rebuilt damaged houses, or struggled with their own trauma. During the 2006-07 school year, when between 15 and 25 new students registered every day with the state-run Recovery School District. Returning students had often lived in numerous cities in two years; still traumatized, they often ran roughshod over unseasoned and overtaxed teachers.

In January 2007, with classroom space and teachers at a premium, officials at the Recovery School District reportedly waitlisted 300 students. It was then that Melissa Sawyer, a former schoolteacher who heads the city’s Youth Empowerment Project, noticed that many local teens had nothing to do. They had been expelled, placed on school waiting lists, or lacked proper documents for enrollment, she said. Sawyer decided to dedicate the project’s back room to a new educational arm she dubbed NOPLAY, or New Orleans Providing Literacy to All Youth. It was a stretch for the small agency, but the need was acute. "We had no choice," Sawyer said. Within two weeks, it had enrolled 40 students.

Though they had returned to their hometown, that time period was rough on many families—including the Lees, who had lost everything when their pre-Katrina rental house took in 19 feet of water. Their mother found a new place but worked three jobs to pay rent, which had nearly doubled across the city. Often, her children were in bed when she got home. "At night, when we were sleeping, she would come into our room and give us kisses on our foreheads," Devante said. "Then she’d say a little prayer. She’d kiss and pray."

For Devante Lee, the year that Katrina happened basically doesn’t exist. He believes that others his age also avoid looking back. (Tyrone Turner)

Today in New Orleans, some youth service-providers say they are adjusting their mission and programming to serve adults in their mid-20s who, after Katrina, fell behind in school and life.

Though the effects of trauma vary greatly depending on the strength of family structure and other factors, Green-Derry said that these academic and developmental delays jibe with research about trauma, which shows that many traumatized children will experience what she calls "cognitive bumps" well into adulthood. "They tend to stall out," she said.

Adolescents during Katrina may have been hit harder than any other demographic, according to the sociologists Peek and Fothergill, whose work will soon be published in a book called Children of Katrina. The pair found that, in comparison, younger children seem to have been "buffered."

Devine, who’s now 23, said it’s clear that the missed year of school in Houston derailed him. "It was a setback," he said. "We had missed too much." He got his GED, fulfilling his promise to his mom, but not until three years after his classmates had graduated. After Devante graduated, the brothers spent a few years focused mostly on playing video games, with some odd jobs mixed in, Devante said.

The brothers said they bounced back after enrolling in Café Reconcile, a New Orleans program providing academic support and workplace training to youth ages 16 to 22. Devante is now enrolled in community-college classes while Devine has worked for the past two years at Reconcile and hopes to build a career working with at-risk youth. "This is along the lines of what I want to do," he said, noting that many of those walking through Reconcile’s doors remind him of a younger version of himself.

Feigenbaum, the former dean, also now runs a program focused on "opportunity youth"—young people ages 16 to 24 who are neither working nor in school. Pushed partly by Katrina, Louisiana now tops the nation in its rate of opportunity youth, with a recent analysis suggesting that one out of every five people ages 16 to 24 in Louisiana falls into this category. At NOPLAY, this group makes up 75 percent of the agency’s student base. But it could soon expand programming to people as old as 30, providing services to those who were teenagers when Katrina struck.

Some in New Orleans have even questioned whether teens traumatized by Katrina have been disproportionately affected by the city’s high rates of gun violence. A 2011 Bureau of Justice Assistance report found that over half of those charged with murder in New Orleans during 2009 and 2010 were age 23 or younger. More than half of victims were 27 or younger. Most would have been adolescents when Katrina hit five years before.

Tamara Jackson runs a group, that supports survivors of homicide victims, before which she worked for nearly 20 years at an adolescent mental-health facility in the city where she often saw traumatized adolescents who lashed out or became depressed. Now, when she talks with survivors and attends legal trials of assailants, she hears echoes of her earlier work. "I feel like we could have done more for this generation, whom we have now labeled 'problematic,'" she said.

When Devante thinks back, he wonders about his best friend and neighbor, a boy named Saul, whom he hasn’t seen since 2005. He wonders about how his life would be different if he’d had a normal high-school experience, with stable teachers and classmates by his side for years. But he stops short after a few minutes, as if he’s unable to go any further.

For him, he says, the year that Katrina happened basically doesn’t exist. He believes that others his age also avoid looking back. "People are blocking it out of their minds," he said. "I don’t like to think about it too much myself."

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.