07-08-2020  2:31 pm   •   PDX and SEA Weather
Marian Wright Edelman
Published: 26 April 2006

As a dusty haze settles over her trailer, Judy sits alone on the wooden steps outside her door. She's taking a break while her 11-month-old granddaughter, Myan, sleeps. The child has been sick with a respiratory ailment made worse by the dust that comes through the trailer's vents.

It's hard for Myan to sleep, as noisy children with few places to play run between trailer rows. Judy has no car and she has had to struggle to get Myan to be seen by a pediatrician and to receive her immunization shots for chickenpox and rubella.

There are few health care resources available to Myan or the more than 600 other children in the Renaissance Village trailer park outside Baton Rouge, La., which was created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to house families left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. A number of children suffer from asthma and upper respiratory ailments aggravated by dust that sweeps down the gravel-topped roads. Mobile clinics staffed by family nurse practitioners visit the park only three days a week. There is not a single doctor on site to serve the nearly 1,700 residents of the trailer park.

Judy has to divide her time between caring for Myan and looking after her diabetic 84-year-old mother, as well as her 14-year-old daughter, Kassmere. They all share the same FEMA trailer. Judy's four older children are a few trailers away.

Judy's family has been through a lot. When Katrina hit, they lived in the rural part of Plaquemines Parish, a narrow peninsula that extends into the Gulf of Mexico. Their home was washed away, and they had to move from shelter to shelter four times before they arrived at Renaissance Village. Now Myan, who just started walking, has little room to grow. There's no playground and you can't push a stroller on gravel.

"Back home, the children had parks to go to. I knew they were safe among our neighbors. We didn't lock our doors," said Judy. "There are drug dealers and bad influences here. I just want to get Myan and my children away."

Miles away, in Houston, Texas, you have to steal glances at Raynell's large, luminous, brown eyes. He won't look at you, preferring to fix his gaze on something in the yonder, and his brow is so furrowed you have to wonder what in the world has a 4-year-old boy so worried.

"I love J.B.," he abruptly announces. The last time Raynell had seen J.B. Jones, his maternal grandfather, was in September in the New Orleans Superdome, where both had sought refuge from Katrina and the torrential flooding that ensued.

With his mother and older brother and sister, Raynell spent several harrowing days and nights in the Superdome, saved from Katrina only to face hunger, heat, poor sanitation, darkness and danger inside the facility.

"They turned the lights off and it was dark," recalls Emyne, Raynell's 9-year-old sister. "They were shooting people. It was scary in there."

Meanwhile, J.B. was being cared for by his ex-wife in a special section of the Superdome reserved for the disabled. Eventually, he was transferred to Tulane University Hospital while Raynell and his family were bused to a shelter in Dallas and later to Houston. The family lost track of J.B.

Months of desperate searches on the Internet, by telephone and by word of mouth finally paid off in early February when, at last, the family learned that J.B. had settled in a Louisiana rehabilitation center an hour away. Raynell rejoiced at the good news. But on the same day the boy learned his grandfather's whereabouts, J.B., only 51, died.

"I wish I was back home," says Raynell, sullenly.

Raynell and Myan are just two of Katrina's youngest victims, babies and preschoolers with no way to understand why familiar routines or beloved adults were suddenly snatched away. How can we help them — and the adults who are struggling mightily to rise above their own troubles in order to care for them?

The Children's Defense Fund is calling for an immediate emergency child mental health corps and more mobile vans and school-based health clinics to meet the mental health needs of children like Myan and Raynell. These families need health and mental health services now. And children need quality early childhood experiences.

Immediate steps must be taken to serve all children who need Early Head Start and Head Start. Collaboration with high-quality child care and preschool providers would also meet some of the immediate and longer-term needs of Katrina's children and families. Coupled with other support from parents, the community, faith groups, private and public sector networks and jobs and housing, the fabric of family and community can be rewoven for the thousands of children like Myan and Raynell who need adults with the capacity to meet their needs.

Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund.

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