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Reuniting Families After Katrina's Chaos

Children and Parents Were Separated After the Storm Struck

WebMD Feature

In the chaos of Hurricane Katrina, secure family ties unraveled. Teens were airlifted from rooftops while their parents stayed behind. Toddlers wandered unaccompanied on freeways. Mothers were forced to leave sick babies inside hospitals while they fled to safety with their other children.

For the first time in its history, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Virginia has posted Internet photos of children missing not after abduction, but natural disaster; the photos range from a 3-year-old girl lost from her grandmother's house in Alabama to a 17-year-old boy last spotted at the New Orleans Convention Center.

Fortunately, many missing children's photos have been stamped "resolved" as more and more youngsters are reunited with loved ones in the days following the country's worst natural calamity. But mental health experts tell WebMD that even when these families come under one roof again, some will need help to cope with the emotional fallout.

"Initially, there's the relief and the recovery from the shock," says Daniel Hoover, PhD, a psychologist at the Menninger Clinic in Houston. But eventually the euphoria wears off, and parents are no longer in sheer survival mode. That's when trouble can start. "A lot of people are really focused on the 'here and now,' concrete realities of having a place to stay and handling the crisis. As that crisis abates and people are settled, there's room for the kind of emotional aftershock that tends to set in."

'Feelings of Guilt'

For many families, the nightmare isn't over yet. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children ((888) 544-5475) lists 669 children from Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama who are either missing or are searching for lost parents. Separated youngsters and parents languish in a state of emotional limbo. They don't know whether they'll find their loved ones -- or how long it might take.

Besides agonizing over a child's fate, "Parents may have feelings of guilt about how they got separated in the first place, even when things are largely out of their hands," Hoover says. "That's an important thing to address -- that tendency to self-blame."

What are separated children going through? "Absolute terror and panic and concern about what will happen," he says. "Children who are old enough to know what's going on and young enough not to feel they have any control over the process -- it's very difficult for them."

"Younger children are solely dependent for the most part on their parents for food, shelter, water -- all their basic needs. And now they're gone," says Seth Allen, a family services liaison with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "Also, the emotional issues that they trust their parents to deal with are not being addressed."

'Emotional First Aid'

For teenagers, losing a peer network compounds the pain, Allen says. "Not only are they unable to locate their parents, but their friends are missing." What's more, teens realize that they may never be able to resurrect their lives in their destroyed hometowns.

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