Dealing with Disruption

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, 
the mother of a child with special needs 
tries to keep things in perspective

by Sharon Dufrene

I know this is difficult time for those of you that have school systems taking on children from South Louisiana. I have a child also in a self-contained class. I have no doubt that things will be very difficult for the next few months. I am writing this to maybe give you an idea of what it is like down here and in hope that a bigger picture evolves.

I live in Baton Rouge, which is about 70 miles from New Orleans and much less than that from the devastation created by Katrina. Our city was greatly spared the horrors experienced by New Orleans, but did not escape unscathed. Less than 10 miles from my home, families are having to boil water to make it safe enough to drink. Most of our city has minimal damage, but damage that affects our daily lives nonetheless, especially where power and phone service are concerned.

Life has changed as we know it. Our population has increased so dramatically that we are now the largest city in Louisiana. Many of us still do not have power. Traffic is horrendous. With signal lights out, some streets still inaccessible and the substantial number of people now living here, a former 10 minute drive can take up to an hour or more. And often times, while driving we come across families on the side of the road, just sitting and waiting. Last night my sister left her 15-hour shift just to run up on a busload of New Orleanians who were driven to Baton Rouge and dropped at the bus station. Over a hundred people with nothing and no place to go. Most of them were in absolute tears as they had not eaten in three days and could not remember the last time they slept or had a glass of water. She spent the next few hours carting food and water and blankets and whatever back to the bus station.

Most of our schools are shelters, so school has been cancelled until next week when hopefully more long-term shelters are created. Constantly we hear news reports of our shelters as being full, only to hear another church, another municipal building, another whatever has opened to take more people in. Many have opened their homes to house evacuees, complete strangers. Most of us are already housing friends and family members affected in one way or another by the storm. We have all packed up every can of food, every item of clothing, every toy and book and box of band-aids we can more than afford to share. It matters not which direction we drive in, there is a shelter somewhere that is in desperate need of whatever we can manage. Many of us plan to take in more families as our own families are able to return to their homes.

There is a shortage of everything. If you can find gas, be prepared to wait two or more hours in line. Yesterday, I traveled to three stores before I found milk and bread. I also bought the last roast. There was no sandwich meat to be had, no hamburger. Fresh produce was minimal. The neighborhood store I shop in, that has never ever had a crowded day, had lines down the aisles as shoppers tried to check out their purchases. The larger stores are worse. I see no familiar faces anymore. It is as though I have moved to another city. I have lived in Louisiana all of my life. I grew up in a smaller town, closer to the Gulf. Regardless of where a hurricane actually hit, we were the brunt of some of its rage. I know how to prepare for a hurricane and did. None of us were prepared for this.

Where we live is obviously a direct shot from Baton Rouge's rescue helicopter base as at any given time you can walk out and see helicopters either coming or going. There is a large triage shelter about five miles from where we live. Many of the evacuees are brought there first. We sit outside, long after the sun has gone down and if the heat permits, and wonder what will happen to the people onboard. After seeing the devastation and knowing that these last evacuees were in the worst of the worst, I don't dare contemplate what has already happened to these people. It is just too horrifying.

There are constant news reports of looting and shootings, not just in New Orleans, but right here in our own city. Most of these have turned out to be just rumors with no substantiation. However, it is something we are prepared to see. One of the areas hardest hit in New Orleans is called Desire Project, which is completely under water. This area is so rough that unless you are part of the community, you dare not travel there, even in the best of times. This area has been evacuated and bussed into our home town. I can only guess that moving a city well-known for high crime, into my city ... It is very scary. My husband has already issued a no-go after dark. He has taken one of our pistols out of storage. It will be the first time we have had a loaded gun in our home since we adopted our kiddos.

Even those refugees (most of the refugees) who have been hard-working, God-fearing all of their lives are at the end of their wits. People are hot -- so very, very hot, hungry, thirsty, tired, and desperate. Most of the refugees have lost everything, even more than their homes, cars, pets, and even family members. Many wonder if the wind and water and now the fires, will leave behind any single thing that indicates they once lived in their own neighborhoods.

Many who were once together clinging to rooftops are now separated through the process of evacuation. Mothers have no idea where their children are. It is just too new for the tracking system to work. The news is not broadcasting what officials are whispering under their breaths with regards to the death toll. At least two of the major hospitals in New Orleans are operating without air conditioning, clean water, and the medical staffing or supplies needed. This morning I watched 21 babies from neo-natal being airlifted back to Baton Rouge. Babies so severe that living was a slim prospect to begin with. Not all the moms were allowed to accompany their infants, so they were left behind. The word catastrophe minimizes what we are seeing and many are experiencing.

I guess that all of this is what I see when I look at how life will change for my child. It is so much bigger than us. My son's routine is already disrupted as we have had no power, then when power was restored, now have friends and family coming in and out at all hours to sleep, shower, eat or just get out of the heat for a while. Things are definitely different, even at this safe place called home.

Schools here in Baton Rouge are planning to start split shifts, where our children will share the school day. It will also be an extended school day. We are unsure yet as to how this will work. As school teachers are also displaced, New Orleans teachers will be able to keep their jobs by working in other school systems. Of course, there is no guarantee that enough teachers fled New Orleans to match the number of children who also fled New Orleans. Many, many teachers will be overworked. I doubt that any teacher or even school administrator will have control over what her/his classroom will look like.

I guess what I have decided to do is keep things in perspective. I do not relish the idea of my son's class growing, probably larger than the regular ed classes. I do not like the idea that the one on one attention he has just settled in to, will be replaced with chaos. I also know that there will be a transition time when moving the additional children in and then another when the children return to their own city. I know that he will melt down completely if we are placed in the shift that starts at 1 p.m. and ends at 8 p.m. It will be heck to get him accustomed to the shift that starts at 5 a.m. I worry that not enough teachers will be available and my child will be placed with a new teacher who does not know what he needs or is too darn emotionally stretched to care.

Yet, that same perspective reminds me that we are so very, very fortunate. If Katrina had not veered the 20 or so miles, at the last minute, I would be one of those families. We are calling them displaced, another complete minimalization for what these folks are experiencing. My son will sleep in his own home every night. Albeit different in some ways, the same home he has known since he was a toddler. He will attend the same school, with all of the same new school clothes we bought in August. He will not have to worry about a bath or a drink of water or losing the cot he and his family share every night. He has his dog and two cats and even the hamster I hate, all safe and sound and snuggled with him every night. He has his same toys, books and all the computer stuff- minus the things he and I felt were appropriate to send to the children who lost it all. He will also have a first hand experience in giving and selflessness. And most importantly, he will have his dad and I right next to him.

Please remember that this is a temporary situation.  I have no idea when families will go home, but I do know that it will be as soon as they are possibly allowed. These families do not want to be here. This is not the first time this subject has come up. Right here in my own community, I have received calls regarding this same issue. As parents, we know that our first loyalty is to our own children. And even with the compassion I have for these families, I too feel a bit invaded.

I am an educational advocate. I too am quite anxious knowing that the children I advocate for and even my own child will be substantially affected by the turmoil our school systems are entering.But sometimes it is not about doing the legal thing or even the appropriate thing. Sometimes it is just about doing the only thing possible. Please pray for Louisiana.

[Sharon Dufrene is a member of the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council. For information on people with disabilities and their families who have been affected by Hurricane Katrina, go to www.katrina-la.net/]

copyright © 2005 by Sharon Dufrene

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