Sunday, October 16, 2016

Principal, Staff, Students Help Each Other in Disaster Recovery - Louisiana

Teachers and parents collecting needed items
after the Louisiana flood

By Jane Feehan 

BATON ROUGE, La.—The flooding event of early August heightened first-day-of-school anxieties for many of the 700 students at Woodlawn Elementary School in Baton Rouge. Few had uniforms; floodwaters carried them away along with most or all of their possessions. Instead of looking forward to the first day in class, many children were left embarrassed about their circumstances.

But Woodlawn students, pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, were not alone in their losses. Their principal, Janice Lindsey, and 12 of the school’s 44 teachers had sad flood stories to tell.

“My husband, three cats and I were rescued by boat,” said Lindsey who has served as principal for two years. Water rose from the yard to the steps of the house in about twenty minutes.” During the rescue, the cats and the principal went overboard. “I was pulled to safety, two of the cats swam to the carport and the third went up a tree and sat for a day and a half.” All are safe now, but Lindsey and her husband lost many of their belongings during the disaster.

There was more to think about than personal loss; the principal and her staff were determined to stay focused on the all-important first day of school. Going to school brought routine to everyone’s life. Routine was to serve as an important piece of the recovery process; it would be a beacon of order in their disaster-wrought chaos.

“We called each student to say ‘come in, uniforms are not required,’” said Lindsey.

Then 30-40 teachers and parents rolled up their sleeves and got to work supporting their school community. They helped their principal, other teachers and students at their water-logged homes in any way they could. And with assistance from neighboring Woodlawn Baptist Church, they obtained new uniforms for all—and then some.

 “They did such a good job raising awareness about the situation there were enough uniforms for all the students plus extras for another school,” said Lindsey who helped opened Woodlawn in 2009 when she was a teacher. 

When students arrived and saw many classmates and teachers—and even their principal—in the same situation, they were more at ease. Shared loss was to play an important role as they embarked upon an emotional rollercoaster.

For the first week of class most were in shock. The second week was about working to salvage what could be saved and to clean up some of the debris. Those first few weeks were punctuated by tearful breakdowns followed by firm resolutions to move ahead.

“We had to be gentle with students,” said Lindsey. “We assigned no major projects. All our activities had a positive focus.”

Homework was kept to a minimum. A guidance counselor was in place. In class, students were encouraged to express themselves by drawing emojis of their personal emotions or to show how they helped others. The sketches about helping others soon outnumbered those of personal loss. Links of the drawings were strung across classrooms to symbolize links of help.

Routine and positive focus serve as important steps in the recovery process of children in disasters. Both are recommended by a number of children-focused organizations working on the Louisiana recovery. In Louisiana, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been working with federal partners, including the U.S. Department of Education, nongovernmental organizations, pediatric experts and external stakeholders to ensure the needs of children are considered and integrated into disaster related efforts initiated at the federal level. The work is underway and will continue for as long as it takes.

For children, losing possessions can include losing pets, a favorite toy or other cherished treasure. They may not understand why their parents want to dispose of what’s left of their belongings when they’re contaminated with dirty floodwater and mud.

“Children in disasters face different issues, but their recovery is important to the recovery success of the entire community,” said FEMA’s Deputy Federal Coordinating Officer Tito Hernandez. “The community, federal family and FEMA must do what we can to help children in Louisiana affected by this flooding disaster. I applaud the terrific work of Ms. Lindsey and her Woodlawn Elementary staff.”

Useful Links

    • “Helping your Child Cope”
    • “Talking to Children about Disasters”
    • “How Children of Different Ages Respond to Disasters”
    • “How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning” and
    • “Flash Flood Recovery”
  • National Child Traumatic Stress Network:
Tags: Disaster Recovery, Louisiana, Woodlawn Elementary School

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