10 years after Katrina, addressing the mental trauma that lingers

    Kendall Hooker stands on the roof of the New Orleans Healing Center in the city's Marigny neighborhood. Behind him is the edge of the skyline

    Kendall Hooker stands on the roof of the New Orleans Healing Center in the city's Marigny neighborhood. Behind him is the edge of the skyline

    Ten years after Hurricane Katrina struck, much of the physical damage the storm caused in New Orleans has been repaired. But a deeper, invisible wound brought by the storm remains.

    Ten years after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, much of the physical damage the storm caused in the city of New Orleans has been repaired. Neighborhoods and communities have been rebuilt. Schools, hospitals, businesses, and restaurants have re-opened.

    But a deeper, invisible wound brought by the storm remains. Thousands of residents, and especially children, were traumatized by the storm and the displacement and struggle that followed.

    In late August of 2005, Kendall Booker was in fifth grade, watching cartoons. All of a sudden, the program blacked out, and then President George Bush appeared on screen. Annoyed, Kendall flipped through the stations in search of another cartoon. But all he saw was the president. “And my mind just snaps,” Kendall remembers. “Something really is going on and it’s serious to where like, this man is on 50 channels. So I decided to listen but at that time I couldn’t comprehend everything.”

    Soon after that, Kendall’s grandfather came in the room and told him they were leaving. He was living with his grandpa at the time and his siblings were all split up, staying with different family members. Kendall and his grandpa went to a Days Inn in Dallas, but he had no idea where his brothers and sisters were. On the hotel TVs, things did not look good back home.

    “I see so many people crying on the TV, and this channel that they had for so many lost children,” which made Kendall think of his family. “I’m just wondering where’s my brothers or anything, where’s my sister?”

    Kendall was nine years old at the time and had no idea what was going on. His grandpa wasn’t explaining where his other family members were, or when they were going back home and, most importantly, when Kendall could go back to school. He loved being in school.

    “It was so fun to learn at that time. I used to mug the clock like, it’s 3 o’clock, you serious?” he said. “Every Tuesday before Katrina we used to get out for 11 o’clock- I hated them days.”

    Kendall hated those days because it meant he had to go home. He grew up with an abusive single mom, who beat Kendall and his siblings. It got so bad that school and neighbors noticed, and called child protection services. Kendall remembers being woken up in the middle of the night. “They came on the fire escape, and they came through our window, and I just see them grabbing my brother taking him out the window, some white people, and I’m like what the hell is going on?”

    Kendall was five. His mom went to jail, so he and his siblings were split up into different foster homes, where the abuse continued. “I was just in the room all day, as soon as I come home from school I was in my room all day, like an inmate.” Kendall went from one foster home to another for five years until he moved in with his grandparents. This was shortly before Katrina.

    Through all of this adversity, Kendall says he never had any behavioral problems. But when he evacuated to Texas, his grandpa kept making promises that he couldn’t keep. “He kept telling me I’m gonna sign you up for school, and he never put me in school. That’s one thing I’m thinking about. Where’s my family? That’s another thing I’m thinking about. It was all this building up inside of me. So that’s how I flashed out the first time.”

    By flashing out, Kendall means his first violent episode – he describes it like a black-out. Alone in the hotel room, Kendall starting throwing rocks he had brought from outside against the wall, and through windows. He ripped the blankets, he broke the TV. But he has no memory of doing it, he says. “It was just a bunch of things damaged in my hotel room…everything was all over. I don’t even know how they got me to the mental hospital, I can’t even remember.”

    This marked the beginning of Kendall’s ‘flashouts’ that landed him in and out of mental institutions and jail for the next decade. It’s as if losing his only pillar of stability, the classroom, unleashed years of pent up trauma. Kendall experienced a new trauma when he returned to New Orleans, and saw an unrecognizable place. “It’s like a Tsunami came,” he describes. “Everything was everywhere. It looked like the whole world came down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and they didn’t clean up afterwards. Like it was obvious the city was dead.”

    This is what thousands of children returned to when they came home. Mental Health professionals, like Beth Cooney, scrambled to help cope with the shock. Cooney is the director of evidence-based practice for project Fleur de Lis, an organization that was started in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to deal with long-term impacts of trauma that children experienced related to the storm. “We have kids who were floating on doors in the 9th ward here and they were four or five and they remember it,” Cooney says. “And they’ve had tons of experiences but they say that’s what’s bothered them the most.”

    Cooney specializes in trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy. The organization partners with schools, and together they identify students who may benefit from the program. In addition to living through Katrina, many of these kids have experienced a high number of Adverse Childhood Events, which many mental health providers refer to as “aces.” Cooney says most of the kids she works with have experienced four out of five aces: “Having a mentally ill person living at home, having experienced child abuse, physical abuse…we teach kids how to understand things that they’re experiencing because of trauma. Things like nightmares and trouble sleeping. And we normalize that and say because you experienced this traumatic event, this is normal.”

    Cooney says most of these kids also have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and they’re in a state of hyper vigilance all the time. So they play games to learn how to relax and calm themselves down. Fleur de Lis’ strategy to access these kids through schools is something the city at large is starting to embrace. One of the goals is to make the city’s schools trauma-sensitive, says Charlotte Parent, director of Health for the City of New Orleans. “Hopefully what happens is you begin to recognize when students are having issues and instead of dealing with them in a way that is creating a bigger problem, and that this may be an acting out based on trauma, versus this child is just a bad child.”

    This concept of asking “what happened to you?” before judging behavior is just catching on with mental health providers around the country. And for a health department that usually focuses on issues like heart disease and diabetes, it means switching gears.

    Parent says the New Orleans community identified violence as the leading public health problem. “We can’t arrest our way out of this and put people in jail, you have to reach down further and hopefully shift the paradigm from the parenting pieces all the way through.”

    Parent says it’s impossible to ignore the impacts of Hurricane Katrina when looking at the city’s current struggle with gun violence and high incarceration rates. The storm was ten years ago, but it’s a daily presence, she says, and always will be.

    “Whether it’s children or adults- if you lived through it and you were here, and experienced that, there’s no way that’s going away, it is a death. So imagine if someone close to you passed away unexpectedly and you were left to try to figure out what to do.”

    She says Kendall Hooker’s story is a familiar one. Kendall is 20 now, and just graduated high school in May. He’s living what he calls ‘post to post’- sleeping on different friend’s couches each night, looking for work, and trying to stay out of trouble. But he still often feels alone. “Honestly, you gotta train yourself because a counselor is not gonna be there when you at that point of flashing out. And I know the choices I make have consequences.”

    Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, high school grad Kendall Hooker has a five year plan. By 2020, he wants to be financially stable.  He wants a place to live. He wants a child of his own. But most importantly, he wants to feel safe. “I wanna be in a better life to where I don’t have to look back every time I step out, I wanna be comfortable in the life I live.”

    This report is part of a multimedia mental health journalism series made possible by the Scattergood Foundation.  Laine Kaplan-Levinson is a multimedia producer at WWNO. 

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal