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Kids displaced by storms could face years of psychological problems

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NEW ORLEANS - For many of the children displaced by the season's devastating hurricanes, the future no longer is measured in years but in terms of days and sometimes hours.

That is how quickly their lives change. With one large gush of water they are swept away from their homes, their friends and sometimes their families. At a moment's notice, they are uprooted from one shelter and sent to another. There is no time to think about what is left behind, only what they can throw into a bag and carry with them on a bus headed someplace new.

This has become Saquisha Chriss' life. The 4-year-old had not yet recovered from her harrowing ordeal fleeing floodwaters in New Orleans when Hurricane Rita started making its way toward her.

Saquisha had no idea that another hurricane was coming as she watched her mother hurriedly pack their belongings late last week - a few donated clothes, blankets and toys - into a laundry bag at their shelter in New Orleans. Her mother told her they were leaving to try out another shelter.

Sabrina Chriss said she cannot mention the words hurricane, storm or rain when her daughter is close. If she does, Saquisha's eyes open wide and she starts to ramble about her traumatic experience fleeing the family's flooding home after Hurricane Katrina. Saquisha waded through rising floodwaters, clinging to her father's back. The family waited for hours on the rooftop of a school until help came, then spent two days stranded on an interstate overpass in the blistering sun and darkness.

"I had to walk in the water," the youngster said, her small voice filled with anxiety. "I had to get on Daddy's neck. The water came up in the house. I had to go over by Mommy. I was scared."

Sabrina Chriss said she's thankful she and her three small children are far away from Hurricane Rita. She evacuated the Cajundome in Layfayette along with 1,200 other residents and was driven by bus to Shreveport. From there, she and her family drove their car to Irving, Texas, trying to get as far away from the wind and rain as she could.

On Saturday, Sabrina Chriss and her children were comfy in a small hotel and doing fine, she said. It wasn't raining there, and Chriss said she was relieved they got out of town in time.

"The children are doing all right," she said. "I'm glad I got them out. I didn't want them to go through another storm no more. It scared them."

Chelsey Jones, 13, has moved four times since Hurricane Katrina destroyed her family's home in Gulfport, Miss. Last week, she and her family landed in a skating rink in Gulfport with no air conditioning or running water, a Red Cross shelter for 119 people, most of them strangers.

Though Hurricane Rita was making its way to the Gulf Coast, Chelsey seemed unfazed. It was not the time to worry about something she has no control over, and there were more pressing matters at hand.

"I don't like it here because people are always looking in your face," Chelsey said, sucking her thumb while lounging on a cot in the large arena. Then she flipped over and yelled at her younger brother, who was playing with friends on the bleachers. "Stop that running!" she ordered.

If things were normal, Chelsey would be settling into her 7th-grade class by now. Her biggest concern would be which of the new school outfits she would wear today, not whether she will run out of ice to preserve the insulin she needs to manage her diabetes.

But nothing is normal in a child's post-hurricane world. While physical scars from the hurricanes will heal, experts said, for many children the future could be a lifetime of crippling psychological problems. The images of a parent, a neighbor or a family pet slipping away in the floodwaters are etched in their minds. The longer they wait for counseling and stability, the more ingrained the trauma becomes.

"Children don't have a complete understanding of what it means to lose their surroundings," said Dr. Louis Kraus, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. "They don't know when they're going home or where home will be. They have lost their checks and balances."

Hurricane Katrina has displaced more than 1 million people, but children also face a risk of being exploited, experts said. More than 2,880 displaced children from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are separated from their families, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Children, like adults, are vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder, meaning they have flashbacks or trouble sleeping or are unable to eat. The good news is that their conditions can improve with counseling.

Federal, state and local mental health associations are preparing for an onslaught of cases and already have placed about 5,000 mental health professionals in Louisiana and Mississippi.

While schools will begin reopening in coastal Mississippi in two weeks, Chelsey is not thinking about returning. She is not ready, and her mother is not going to force her. There still is too much uncertainty in their lives, too many long-term decisions to be made.

"One of my friends moved to Memphis, and when we get our money from FEMA, we are going up there too. I mean Slidell, no, Baton Rouge," Chelsey said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a name everyone in the hurricane areas has come to know. "I don't care where we go, I just want to go where there is snow. I hate this heat."

Like most teenage girls, Chelsey has her priorities in order. No.1: boys. No 2: boys. No. 3: boys. There are plenty of them in the shelters, but as soon as she meets someone she likes, one of them has to leave. They exchange cell-phone numbers, but no one really expects a call.

The youthful pleasures that teenagers enjoy are gone. In a shelter, privacy means pushing your cot into a corner and covering your head with a blanket. Shopping for new clothes means digging through a box of donated T-shirts. Hanging out with her new best friend, Rachel White, whom she met at another shelter, means sitting on the floor in a crowded room watching a portable TV.

Chelsey longs for her own room, her canopy bed and the stereo system her mother had bought just before the storm. But she has seen the ruins of their old house. The huge oak tree in the back yard that used to hold a swing landed in her bedroom. Everything is crumbled, even the life-size doll she mistook for her best friend's body until her mother pulled it from the rubble.

During the height of Hurricane Katrina, 12-year-old Cody Cunningham pulled his mother from beneath a wooden beam and saved her life. He became her hero, but his mother thinks that what he needs now is a hero of his own.

Life was tough for Cody even before the hurricane. The storm just made a bad situation worse. His mom, Adrian Cunningham, 31, worked two jobs, seeing her son only two nights a week. He spent most of the time in an apartment in Hattiesburg, Miss., with his mother's abusive boyfriend, who often beat her up and then turned on Cody, Adrian Cunningham said.

The day after the storm, though suffering from three broken ribs, she grabbed her son and fled to Gulfport, a city ravaged by the hurricane.

"I wasn't thinking," she said, "I just had to get us out of there."

She is worried that Cody has had to grow up too quickly, that there is sadness in his eyes and loneliness on his face. "He is 12, going on 21," she said.

When she finds a new home, she will get counseling for him. But in the meantime she does what she can to make him happy. She used most of the $2,000 check she got from FEMA to buy a used car, but she put aside $35 to buy Cody a portable television with a DVD player.

When he needs a break from the noise and chaos of the skating rink shelter, he goes to the car and watches television. There was no money left to buy a DVD.

What Cody longs for is stability, a place that is safe and quiet. He is an A and B student, and he is ready to go back to school. He wants to play football again. He is a good linebacker, he said, and one day he will play professionally.

"This is our third shelter," the 5th-grader said. "You get used to one place and the next day, boom, you've got to be out. Whenever I make friends, FEMA comes and takes them away. The kids I play with now are much younger than me. They are 3 and 4 and sometimes they are aggravating."

In a shelter filled strangers, the children bond quickly. They stick together like they have known each other a lifetime, not just a week or two. Teenage girls take care of the younger ones for free while the adults go to work or stand in lines all day to apply for financial assistance. As Chelsey explained: "Who needs to pay someone for baby-sitting at a time like this?"

Cody hopes that life will be better in a month. Then he reconsiders and decides it could take a year.

Next week, he and his mother and her new boyfriend, whom she met at the skating rink shelter a few days ago, plan to move together to Ocala, Fla.

"They say we've got a home there," Cody said. "I just want to get a home and be someplace stable. I don't care where it is."


(Glanton reported from Gulfport, Miss., and Bowean from New Orleans.)


(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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