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South Mississippi Living 4/07

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Many Coast children are frustrated, traumatized

In Pascagoula schools, grant money is being used to fund program helping students live with hurricane's aftermath.

Pat Sullivan/Special to The Clarion-Ledger
Martha Smelley works with a student at Eastlawn Elementary School in Pascagoula.

By Rebecca Helmes
November 25, 2007

One little boy in the Pascagoula School District keeps his suitcase packed, ready to go if another hurricane approaches.

A little girl cries when she talks about watching water pour into her house from Hurricane Katrina's storm surge more than two years ago.

An 8-year-old student describes her life in a FEMA trailer as "pathetic."

They are among many children along the Mississippi Gulf Coast who still feel helpless or hopeless, are easily frustrated, or have nightmares - all symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the Pascagoula school district, these children get help from the district's five part-time, grant-funded Katrina counselors.

  • More than 600 families are living in MEMA Katrina cottages.

  • More than 13,600 families are living in FEMA trailers and mobile homes on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

  • Students will move back into Gautier Elementary on Monday for the first time since the Aug. 29, 2005, storm.

  • Last year's enrollment in the Pascagoula district - the most recent available - was 6,965 students. That's more than the 6,748 students it had the year after the storm, but it still doesn't match the pre-Katrina enrollment of 7,559. Other districts on the Coast have seen similar enrollment fluctuations.
  • "The kids are hearing everything and being exposed to everything ... with child coping skills," said counselor Linda Holder of Pascagoula.

    That's why the district saw fit to pursue a $100,000 federal grant for the counseling soon after the Aug. 29, 2005, storm. When that money was exhausted, Chevron stepped in with a $250,000 grant to continue it.

    The counselors extol the value of talking about what's wrong - dealing with changes in friends, being sad or moody or working out anger or aggression. They each spend about 20 hours per week listening to students - and sometimes district staff members.

    Theirs is a community that, like others along the Coast, is a patchwork of recovery.

    Along Pascagoula's Beach Boulevard, where one swanky house after another once faced the Gulf of Mexico, some homes are manicured and pristine, as if a hurricane never came through.

    Pat Sullivan/Special to The Clarion-Ledger
    C.P. Winters, a Pascagoula school district counselor, talks with a Central Elementary teacher about Katrina issues.

    But down the street, the only sign of life on a former home's cement slab are two patio chairs facing the ocean.

    Other homes in the neighborhood in varying states of repair have yards scattered with trailers.

    This month, 13,624 Federal Emergency Management Agency travel trailers and mobile homes were occupied on the Coast. More than 600 families were living in Mississippi Emergency Management Agency cottages.

    In most places along the Coast, the storm cut into enrollment. The Pascagoula district lost about 800 students between 2004-05 and 2005-06.

    Many districts along the Coast are seeing enrollment gains but haven't returned to their pre-Katrina enrollment.

    However, academic achievement in coastal districts mostly has held steady with many schools maintaining their Level 4 and 5 ratings. Level 5 is the state's highest achievement rating.

    Pascagoula's Katrina counselors said it's difficult sometimes to separate the issues caused by Katrina and the pre-existing conditions exacerbated by the storm.

    "We've tried to see anybody and everybody (who seeks help)," Holder said.

    Katrina counselor Martha Smelley said she likes that she can take some of the workload off guidance counselors.

    "I have the freedom to just focus on that one child for an hour if I need to," Smelley said.

    Jackson County mom Michelle Wilson, who is leading the Rebuild Jackson County Longterm Recovery Committee, said sometimes parents don't know how to help their children cope.

    "We're not all psychology majors," Wilson said.

    Her stepdaughter, 9 years old when Katrina hit, was at her biological mother's home when the storm surge brought the bayou inside. She climbed up on furniture to avoid the water.

    "It did cause her some problems," Wilson said. "We found she was acting out a little bit.

    Because her stepdaughter attends Jackson County Schools, she set up a few sessions with a counselor outside school who allowed her to talk about what happened.

    Wilson said the girl is not acting out anymore and that more counseling such as Pascagoula offers should be available along the Coast.

    "There are not many programs that are out there that don't cost a lot of money," Wilson said.

    Holder said the issues have changed as people have moved through phases of recovery.

    The year of the storm, she said, people were in survival mode. Last year, she said, they were angry for several reasons - insurance companies weren't paying, families were cramped in FEMA trailers or they just wanted life to be what it was before the storm.

    "It was a new normal, and we didn't like the new normal," Holder said.

    This year, she said, she has been dealing more with moodiness and depression than anger or aggression.

    The counseling is expected to continue at least through this school year.

    Donna Thomas, a counselor in the Gulfport School District, said the guidance counselors in her district pick up the slack with Katrina counseling.

    "If they're (children) still in a FEMA trailer, they're tired of it," Thomas said. "The girls, especially, want privacy. They just can't get any."

    Glen East, Gulfport's superintendent, said his district recognizes families are still coping as best they can.

    "You're still really dealing with 'Why are my mommy and daddy not getting to move back into our house?'" East said. "Folks are moving back, and folks are still living in trailers."

    He said schools in the district probably have taken more field trips in the past few years to give students a breather from Katrina life and talk.

    "It's always going to be a little bit different," East said. "I think you probably still have a lot of people fighting for the old normal. That's probably exactly part of the mental health issue."

    Michelle Eleuterius, a social worker in the Long Beach School District, said more signs of the old normal are cropping up - such as the Burger King that opened in her community.

    Eleuterius said she tries to help students and families see how far they've come.

    "I just help the kids see that life gets better," she said.

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