Flooded-out children adrift, traumatized … Homes damaged, schools closed, routines altered after Louisiana Disaster

Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette

DENHAM SPRINGS, La. — In flood-ravaged pockets of south Louisiana, mental scars are already showing on the youngest victims of a disaster that prompted more than 30,000 rescues and left an estimated 40,000 homes damaged.

Children who endured harrowing rescues are returning home to a jarring landscape that even their parents can scarcely grasp: Homes filled with ruined possessions need to be quickly gutted. Scores of damaged schools and day care centers are closed indefinitely. Parents juggling jobs and cleanup work must also line up caretakers for their kids.

Michelle Parrott, her husband and her six children, ages 6 to 17, have slept in cars, a shelter and a hotel room in the week since they had to be rescued by boat. The flooding wrecked their home in Livingston Parish, where one official has estimated that three-quarters of the residences are a total loss after more than 2 feet of rain fell in three days.

“The emotional toll on the kids has been heavy. They’re all in a bit of shock and stress and having meltdowns and tantrums,” Parrot said. “Trying to get back into their routine is going to be difficult when we don’t know what the future holds for us.”

Routines are particularly important for her 17-year-old son, Blake, who has autism and attends special needs classes at one of the many Denham Springs schools damaged in the floods.

“He feels unsafe constantly. He’s had a lot of breakdowns,” she said. “We’ve had trouble getting his medications in. The therapist flooded, so he’s lacking the emotional support he needs from professionals.”

Parrott home-schools her other five children, but she watched more than $10,000 in school materials float away.

“I have to start over,” she said.

The floods hit just as the school year was starting in many districts, reminiscent of how Hurricane Katrina abruptly ended a New Orleans school year that had barely begun in 2005. With the city under water for weeks and much of its population scattered for months or even years, the first public school didn’t open in New Orleans until three months after the storm as officials tried to revamp a system that was widely considered to be failing long before Katrina.

For most parents in the flood zone this week, patience is their only option. Some school districts, including in East Baton Rouge Parish, are making plans to reopen their doors next week.

But in Livingston Parish, it could take several weeks, maybe even months.

Denham Springs High School was in session for six days before the flooding. Andrew Hunter, the school’s band director, said he and his students won’t wait for the school to reopen to resume practicing. Hunter said they plan to meet Thursday in a field next to the school for their first rehearsal since the storms.

“I have seen a lot of firm jaws, ready to get back to work,” Hunter said. “We control how we respond to adversity.”

Amanda Burge, 35, said one of her friends from Denham Springs plans to temporarily enroll her daughter at a school in Covington while they stay there with a relative. Burge said she can’t move her three sons to another district because her husband’s job is rooted here, but they haven’t had time to weigh their options.

“Everything is gone. School is gone. Home is gone. Church is gone,” said Burge, president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Denham Springs Elementary School.

Even in crisis mode, Burge made sure her 11-year-old son, Logan, didn’t miss his rehearsal for a play at a drama program for kids on Louisiana State University’s campus.

“This is the only normal thing that he gets to do,” she said.

Livingston Parish Schools Superintendent Rick Wentzel said about one-third of the district’s schools sustained some sort of flood damage. Many teachers lost their homes and are coping with trauma of their own.

“These teachers are going to be able to sympathize with these kids because they experienced the same things,” he said. “We’re going to get back. It won’t be long.”

Separately, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber has made a first attempt to assess the scope of the damage from the past week’s historic flooding in southern Louisiana, and the numbers are staggering.

Approximately 280,000 people live in the areas that flooded, according to an analysis the chamber released Friday. In those flood-affected areas are 110,000 homes worth a combined $20.7 million and more than 7,000 businesses — about one in every five businesses in the region — that together employ more than 73,000 people.

The figures underscore two of the biggest challenges that local, state and federal officials face as they work to recover from the flooding: how to house the families left suddenly homeless, and how to pay for the recovery.

The hardest-hit area in the region was Livingston Parish, according to the report: Nearly 87 percent of its homes and 91 percent of its businesses are in flood-affected areas. Few residents had flood insurance. The value of homes in flooded areas exceeds $9 billion, the report says, but “the combined coverage of all Livingston flood policies, in full force, amounts to less than $2.5 billion.”

The chamber cautions that this is a preliminary analysis subject to change as more information becomes available. It does not attempt to assess the actual cost of property damage, but rather the total value of homes in flooded areas.

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