Panama City, Florida AP – When Tiffany Harris and her two children emerged from their hotel after Hurricane Michael roared past, her 3-year-old son pointed to a sea of fallen trees and shattered buildings.
“It’s broken. It’s broken, Mommy, fix it,” she recalls her little boy Amari begging.
Harris, who lives with her boyfriend, two children, plus her sister and her four children near Panama City, soon learned their town house was uninhabitable. Everything was a total loss after Michael powered inland across the Florida Panhandle as a Category 4 monster on Oct. 10.
The two families, with six children between them, were forced because of mold to leave the hotel where they went for a time. They ended up about four hours away in Gainesville, north Florida. Finding food and shelter each night was a struggle. Often they had to sleep in their car.
Hurricanes and the daily challenges that come with surviving what follows can be especially troubling for children, who may be too young to understand what’s happening around them. It’s been especially hard on Harris’ two toddlers.
Sometimes the toddlers refuse to eat. Getting them to use the bathroom has again become a struggle. The children are irritable, constantly asking why they can’t go home. And Harris’ normally happy 2-year-old daughter, Ayla, cries all the time.
“It’s the worst feeling as a mother. To not be able to help or do anything or change anything,” said the 25-year-old mother. “I can’t fix it.”
After Michael’s rampage, some children in the Panhandle hurricane zone had to wait weeks for schools to reopen. Others had to remain for a time in temporary living quarters. And experts say children are undergoing severe stress as they watch their parents attempt to rebuild their lives.
“That loss of safety, loss of innocence and that loss of routine and the ability to really enjoy play. You particularly see that in children in shelters,” said Sarah Thompson, director of U.S. emergencies for Save the Children.
The organization hosted therapeutic play areas in three shelters impacted by Michael. Those programs are staffed by experts who work on “listening to them and saying, ‘it’s OK to feel angry and it’s OK to be fearful in this situation,’” said Thompson.
“What we saw after (Hurricane) Katrina, and it might happen here, is that many families say they’re going to relocate because they lost their homes. That adds additional challenges and stress to children who have to go to a new place, make new friends and are surrounded by strangers,” Thompson added.
Children will look for cues from parents as to how to cope.
“If they see parents kind of falling apart at the seams, that’s going to create anxiety for the children,” said David Murphey, a research scientist at Child Trends, a national non-profit seeking to bolster children’s outcomes.
When a massive tree fell on the home of Lilly Langworthy during Michael, her family lost power for eight days. At first, her boys ages 3, 6, and 7 didn’t want to be apart from their parents. Then all three started sleeping in the same room. Sometimes they’d awake with nightmares.
“They hear winds and they immediately ask if the trees are going to knock over,” said Langworthy, of Chipley.
The 33-year-old mother has been proactive in talking about the storm, constantly reassuring her children they are safe and loved. The family prayed during the hurricane and Langworthy said she often hears the boys praying on their own now.
“I told the boys, ‘It’s OK to be sad when you see something that bothers you and it’s OK to get angry too.’ I want them to know those are healthy emotions,” she said.
Sharife Gacel remembers huddling in the hallway of her Miami home with her parents during Hurricane Andrew and listening to the walls vibrating as the storm roared by in 1992.
Her home was spared but destruction was everywhere. But in an instant, everything changed for the fifth grader.
She wasn’t in school for the rest of the year. Gacel lived on government issued meals as her family waited weeks for power and water to be restored. They were on curfew with military checkpoints and armed guards flanking her neighborhood.
Remarkably, Gacel, now 36, channeled her pain into a career and works today as a therapist helping others through trauma and anxiety.
Said Gacel: “Somehow Miami fought through and that resilience and what we were capable of, that’s what stuck with me.”