"In countries where there truly is no backup, you just have to hang in there and wait for the next flood to pass, wait for the next drought to pass.
"But what is disturbing here is that we are in a country with major back-up . … It takes just 30 days to mobilize for war, so when you've got a war within your own country, it is amazing that we were so dumbfounded, like deer in the headlights."
This is what actress C.C.H. Pounder said after a May 8 meeting with parents and children who survived Hurricane Katrina. She was in New Orleans as part of a Children's Defense Fund delegation of prominent Hollywood and Washington, D.C. women — including Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Garner and Cicely Tyson — who were there to shine a light on the acute mental health, health and education crises of children traumatized by the storm nine months ago.
The group invited a group of parents to tell us about what life has been like for their families in the weeks and months after the hurricane, and the stories they shared broke our hearts. We saw that the slow mobilization and response after the storm had devastating consequences for these families — and nine months later, many are still struggling without adequate backup and help.
One problem that kept coming up was the difficulty they have had getting the health and mental health care their children need. One mother told us that it took her family five months to receive the nebulizer machine her daughter needed to take her asthma medication. A father described the stomach problems his young son began suffering because of stress and how he had to fight to get his son referred for immediate care.
A mother cradled her disabled son in her lap as she explained how difficult it was getting the right therapies for him after they evacuated, because that usually required referrals from a primary care physician — and their own doctor had also fled the storm. She was having a hard time finding new caregivers and getting them up to speed on her son's special needs, including seizures.
A mother who is a pediatrician herself shared how relieved she was when she was finally able to come home to New Orleans to try to reopen her old office, but, as she tearfully explained, she still doesn't know where many of her patients are now. Meanwhile, when her own young son began showing signs of trauma just after the hurricane, his new school had no counselors available — and instead simply handed parents a list of psychologists' names, leaving them on their own to try to find a good one who was taking new patients and might accept their insurance. This pediatrician knew that if she had trouble finding doctors and doing simple things like filling her children's asthma medication prescriptions after the storm, other parents with far fewer resources and connections must really be struggling.
It's unconscionable that these families and thousands like them who have already gone through so much trauma are having such a hard time simply getting the health and mental health care they desperately need.
Many of the parents we met told us how frightened their children still get whenever it rains or they hear news stories about the continued danger to the levees and the city, and how much they dreaded the beginning of the new hurricane season on June 1. They have suffered enough and need health and mental health care now.
Pounder also said, "I have a feeling that (someday) you're going to thank Katrina. You're going to thank that wind and that water, because she's revealed something that has nothing to do with nature. …The system that's in place is the real story, not the weather system."
Once again, she was absolutely right. Hurricane Katrina exposed profound flaws that need repair — indeed, overhauling — in a number of America's current social systems, including the way we care for our citizens when disaster strikes. That the United States lacks a disaster emergency health and mental health policy that extends help immediately to its citizens is unbelievable and intolerable. This huge system gap we can and must afford to fix right away. In fact, we can't afford not to.
Raise your voice for Katrina's children and for your own families who may need help next.
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund.