The country has learned this lesson the hard way before. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina and the crucial failures of federal levees devastated the Gulf Coast and the city of New Orleans, a generation of young people bore the brunt of the long-term damage. The storm and the flood were only the first in a chain reaction that uprooted children from homes and communities, and evacuated many of them to brand-new places across the country. They lost family members and friends, endured bullying in new places, suffered high rates of homelessness and violence, and faced major disruptions in learning and support traditionally provided by school.
Read: The lost children of Katrina
The body of research conducted in the years since Katrina indicates that those effects have endured over time, especially for poor children and children of color. In the book Children of Katrina, the University of Vermont’s Alice Fothergill and the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Lori Peek spent seven years studying the effects of Katrina on young people. Their findings were stark. Children exposed to Katrina and its aftermath were much more likely to suffer emotional disturbances than other kids, even years later. They found that the likelihood of uneven recovery among kids was directly linked to existing social disadvantages—namely poverty and race.
“Disasters last a really long time in the lives of children,” Fothergill told me by phone. Rather than “bouncing back,” as many adults seem to expect, children incorporate trauma into their growth and future lives. Unfortunately, adults don’t usually consider that in their policy creations, especially when it comes to dealing with crises. “People are talking about vulnerability, but they are not talking about children at all,” Fothergill said.
Even now, almost 15 years after Katrina, there’s a frank acknowledgment of the way the flood still lives with people who were children then. Billboards around town featured a slogan of sorts from Denese Shervington, the president and CEO of the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies. Untreated trauma is the underbelly of violence the slogan reads, and Shervington told me it’s a guiding principle for her work promoting healing and resiliency in youth. “Katrina left PTSD rates in children similar to veterans,” she said.
To be sure, Hurricane Katrina is not a perfect parallel to the coronavirus pandemic. Kids were not spared from the floodwaters, or from any phase of the disaster after. The hurricane and flood in 2005 were sudden, brief events, whereas according to the much-discussed Imperial College of London report on social distancing, it’s possible to expect 18 months of waves of lockdowns to stop the coronavirus, including periodic school closures.
Read: The dos and don’ts of ‘social distancing’
Yet Fothergill said the actual dynamics of how kids absorb this pandemic will follow patterns observed during and after Katrina. According to a 2017 study by Fothergill, kids experience the general atmosphere of anxiety and panic as acutely as adults do, only they might be better at hiding it. That fact might contribute to a general sense among adults that children are somehow naturally “resilient,” and can bounce back easily. And that attitude from adults can hamper both proactive attempts to help children process what’s happening, and necessary therapeutic efforts after the disaster.