A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

How Katrina’s Children Made Their Story Their Own

Robert Connor, Akita International University

Enculturation 7 (2010): http://enculturation.net/how-katrinas-children

The Story of Their Story

As I helped my wife’s family after Hurricane Katrina (henceforth Katrina) in 2005, I felt compelled to write the story of how the children from our family, and others, were able to cope. Through my work with some nonprofit organizations and schools, children from diverse backgrounds allowed me access to their experiences and thoughts. The process stretched from the days after Katrina to the present and eventually included eighty-eight children. Although using writing as a therapeutic release, and the discourse analysis of these writings was the original intent of the research, my interactions with the children, the nonprofits, and the government systems awakened for me the salience of social factors that are not addressed in governmental and nongovernmental responses. I believe understanding the children’s reactions and coping processes are important in terms of promoting socially just outcomes.

In the following essay, I relate the rhetorical and cultural journey of the children and their writings through their storm, their media, their government, their peers, and themselves. I use "their" repetitively because I am relating the views and comments of the children themselves. They are constructing complex understandings of their world and how it is situated. Some of their notions remain simple throughout, but others reveal surprising complexity as a result of their encounter with disaster. They are pressured to create “happy endings” while they struggle to understand how their world functions. While contextualizing and interpreting their stories to try to relate children’s knowledge in an adult world, I primarily use their writings and conversations as they were stated.

The Children

After the landfall of Katrina on August 29, 2005, the popular press has noted the mental trauma that the children affected by the hurricanes (both Katrina and Rita having passed their way) have undergone. These behaviors include toy hoarding and hiding during storms (Callimachi B4, Egan “Devastation after Hurricane Katrina”). The trauma was not only, or even principally, the storm and the flood; the deep trauma came from the interaction of these children with the media, government, and nonprofits who claimed to be helping them.

Barton defines a disaster as a collective stress situation where “many members of a social system fail to receive the expected condition of life from the system” (38). Hurricane Katrina resulted in thousands of children failing to receive their basic needs from society and being displaced. They were devastated by the storm, left by their government, haunted by their peers, and forced into recovery by their purported helpers. In the recovery process, the students recover from the storm, the media, the government, and their peers. Through this experience, they define themselves and teach lessons on empowering the disadvantaged.

I collaborated with several governmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and children to investigate the children’s interactions with the organizations and each other. The governmental organizations included three school systems, two government service organizations, a library system, and a FEMA trailer park. The nongovernmental organizations were two nonprofits that fund and coordinate educational opportunities for children. The eighty-eight children themselves are each individuals and hard to classify, but they broadly fit the following four categories. Eight children were from upper-middle class families that relocated. Thirty-eight children remained in devastated areas. Eighteen of the children were from disadvantaged families relocated from New Orleans to a FEMA trailer park. Twenty-four children were from families that were not displaced but were impacted by the media depictions.

The children have a range of exposure to the hurricanes. Some stayed in New Orleans throughout the hurricanes, some evacuated, and some only saw images on the television. The children can be placed on a continuum that extends from directly affected individuals who experienced traumatic events directly to those children whose only exposure to the hurricane trauma was through the mass media. This continuum is not to denigrate the trauma of the events through the television screen; indeed, the repetition of such events on the television caused significant trauma. Some of the students classified as not directly affected, such as one Ohio boy who compares the woes of his area to the woes of New Orleans, were to a great extent affected because geographic ignorance made them feel that the dangers were in their neighborhood. Adding to the variety of physical situations is the fact that the children each have their own internal schemata of the world. A hurricane is entirely expected to one child from Florida who had claimed to evacuate every year and entirely unknown to another boy who was unaware that the danger of hurricanes existed.

The terminology to refer to the children is not free of judgment. Throughout the article, I am careful to use the descriptors of the children themselves, but even the children themselves use a variety of names, many taken from the media, including “evacuees,” “refugees,” and “New Orleanians.” If I were to impose my own terms on these children, I initially would have said that the children not directly displaced from the hurricane could be referred to as “unaffected children;” however, this term is both technically wrong and wrong in spirit because children from other states were indeed affected by the images, stories, and emotions accompanying the hurricanes. Where I would have used this term, I have chosen a term “undisplaced children” to be more accurate when referring to children from locations other than New Orleans. To refer to the other children that collaborated with me in this study, I simply use the word “children” or “children of Katrina,” which was most acceptable to them.

Their Writing

“In the course of engaging with stories . . . we are beginning to discover the process is a social one”
-Freema Elbaz, “Hope, Attentiveness and Caring for Difference: The Moral Voice in Teaching" (432)

The children created a variety of writing artifacts by their own accord and as directed by their caretakers. These writings were not specifically elicited for healing, instead they were a part of the children’s daily school and extracurricular activities. Whether through the caretaker perspective, e.g. Charon, or through the patient perspective, e.g. Anderson & MacCurdy and Spiro, writing orders the events of life into an understandable story for both writer and reader. Even young children in second grade are aware of the purposes of letters and how to use them to relate important events in their lives (Connor, Corsaro and Nelson). Life narrations that describe what life is like during a particular period, such as after a traumatic event, are especially effective are revealing how life is ordered (Luttrell 244). The journey of the children through their story reveals the power of a coherent narrative in recovering their lives.

When examining the children’s artifacts, Dynes’ four ways of referencing disaster are important to remember: the physical agent, the physical consequences of the agent, the way the impact of the agent is evaluated, and the social changes brought by the agent. Katrina brought profound social changes to the communities affected by the storm. Within the changes that disasters bring to social structures, three areas of research are popular, including: a behavioral/organizational response approach, a social change approach, and a political economic/environmental approach (Oliver-Smith 304). I draw from the behavioral approach to see how the language of the children reveals their representations of the disaster and the social change approach to see how the children integrate into the social structures. This line of inquiry into language has been followed by Low to understand how the narratives of those affected by the attacks on September 11, 2001, have incorporated meaning into their lives, under manipulation by mass-mediated representations on television.

The first samples of children’s writings are twenty-four emails sent to Time for Kids, a popular commercial newsmagazine marketed to children, immediately after the hurricanes. The first group of thirteen emails was sent in response to Egan’s article on August 30, 2005, labeled “Devastation After Hurricane Katrina.” The second group of five emails was sent in response to Egan’s article on September 2, 2005, labeled “Crisis After Katrina.” The last group of six emails was sent in response to Egan’s article on September 4, 2005, labeled “Help Reaches New Orleans.”

The next samples of children’s writing were collected with the help of a nonprofit from another state. This organization organizes peer tutoring groups and other enrichment activities for communities in the Unites States. It started a pen pal program for Katrina survivors to write to other children in states not directly affected by the hurricanes. The writing samples in this group are either letters to pen pals or reflections as part of class assignments. This group of thirty-two letters and six reflection assignments were collected in December 2005.

The final samples consisted of thirteen letters written during a literacy class at a FEMA trailer park. This literacy class, which I helped organize, was a collaboration of a local library system and a state-wide nonprofit organization. In this class families arrived and ate together with the organizers before reading children’s books and writing about their experiences.

Finally, I use my conversations with the children and their families and my observations to inform this analysis. The children and families were eager to share their stories and had many insights so that the conversation surrounding the writing was as important as the writing. The observations span from the period immediately following the storm to 2009 and include notes from classes and trips to different organizations, homes, and schools.

Writing and the writing process is a complex interaction of the self, text, and society; this is especially true for children. Their writings and conversations were part of building a story, using a combination of rhetorical techniques and cultural integration. The children often felt that telling their story made it real, reflecting the insight that “something genuine is at stake in a story” (Bullough and Pinnegar 17). Spiro expresses the healing power of a coherent life story:

Story is also a resource in that from it emerge values, beliefs, patterns and assumptions which are revealed not only to the reader, but to the storyteller too. The richness of story is that these values are often expressed symbolically, metaphorically, or notionally, so ‘truths’ are displaced and coded. Thus story can offer a connecting window between surface language and discourse patterns and the subliminal and unconscious. We can learn not only from story or personal narrative, but through it. (Spiro 31)

The Children Meet the Storm

“The house had ten adults, five children, three dogs, and the ashes of my dead mother.” This description is how one upper middle-class, fourteen-year-old girl began her story of her evacuation experience. She and her dad evacuated the storm twenty-four hours before landfall, and the only place they could find to stay was her dad’s friend’s brother-in-law’s cousin’s 1900-square-foot, fifty-year-old house that had lost power from the storm. These fifteen people who did not know each other stayed a week in this house before slowly finding other places to stay when the house’s owner returned after burying her daughter who died from cancer in a distant state.

This story had much in common with the other children’s stories. Whether the children evacuated before the storm or were evacuated after the storm passed, this tale of displacement intermingled with ordinary tragedy was typical in the children’s tales. Rupturing ties with their previous communities, the children were placed in new environments with strangers. Not knowing when they could return to their homes, the children were in a transient state. Unfortunately, this initial displacement, horrible as it was, was just the beginning of the trauma that the children would encounter.

The Children Meet the Media

“That’s my house! That’s my house!” said the teenager as she watched a reporter on television travel by boat down her street. Sitting in the house, I see the wake of the boat on the television lapping the roof of this girl’s house. In this stressful, transient state the children and their families had the media project descriptions of their status. These media depictions brought news of whether their homes had survived, but these depictions were usually dismissed until the families saw the remnants themselves or heard from old neighborhood friends. The children were accustomed to violent, fictional scenes on television from their daily dose of television programs and movies. Viewing their own houses was not usually enough for them to connect the television scenes to reality. Not until they viewed the damage with their own eyes or heard from a trusted family member did they accept the situation.

Hundreds of miles away, these media images would be bringing Katrina to other children for the first time, and these depictions would deeply affect them. Their authority figures would not be family members, but public figures. An authority figure, the governor, is cited as saying “The devastation is greater than our worst fear. . . . It’s totally overwhelming” (Egan “Devastation after Hurricane Katrina”). Such helplessness from authority figures instilled the fear of both the images and the words. The children talk of the helplessness of the familiar authority figures such as parents and police. Children rely on authorities to take care of them, so authorities who cannot correct scary situations are especially frightening.

The undisplaced children from other states mirror the terror of the media depictions. Even when the media depictions do not directly mention objects familiar to the children, the children immediately relate the story to their lives. They talk emotionally of homes in making the connection to themselves. They extend the media’s themes to the things that they hold dear even though these objects were not mentioned by the media. They speak of the damage to schools, animals, relatives, television, and their everyday lives. When the media speaks of wild animals, the children talk of their own pets: “Tiger would chase that rascal away.” When the media discusses flooded nursing homes, the children talk of their own grandparents: “That’s why Mawmaw stays on the second floor.” The children place themselves in the situations that they see in the media, and they personalize how that would affect “Mawmaw” and “Tiger.”

As much as the articles influenced the children in other states sitting in their safe homes, the media and the children displaced from Katrina begin influencing each other. The media took a national perspective and used the local children, as well as adults, to provide local details and emotional depictions. The children took a local perspective and used the media to extend their understanding. This informal interplay of informant and seeker changes the perspectives of the media and the children. The Katrina children and their families give the media compelling footage and introduce the media to local names of communities such as “the Parish” for “St. Bernard Parish” and “Lakeview” for an upper middle-class neighborhood in New Orleans. The media tell the children what to call the storm, such as “Hurricane Katrina” and “Category Five.” Some terms are negotiated with the media; for example, when they began calling the children “refugees,” the children rejected the title and preferred to be called simply “New Orleanians.”

One of the undisplaced children responding to the media images includes this line, “They could have let the hurricane victims stay down there, but they didn’t.” This response is in sharp contrast to the media story’s emphasis on suffering; however, this response foreshadows the larger, nonlocal attitudes of the government and communities to whom the children of Katrina would turn for help.

The Children Meet the Government

"What I’m hearing which is sort of scary is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."
-Barbara Bush (FOXNews, 2005)

Media images affected the responses of host communities and their governments as well. The communities accepting the children did not know how to respond. Rumors circulated that the newly arrived families were criminals. These rumors escalated a regional tension where even before the storm Baton Rougians considered New Orleanians “mobish,” “aggressive,” and “Yankees.” Sparked by the television images of looting, wild rumors described bicycle gangs headed from New Orleans to loot the small town of Gonzales, despite Gonzales being more than fifty miles away. I talked to Gonzales residents about how these rumors affected the responses of the host communities. In the week following Katrina, when a local school asked teachers to visit local motels to invite children to attend school, only three teachers volunteered to go. The teachers were afraid that the children and their families would rob them for their peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. “No one wanted to get out of the car. We had peanut butter sandwiches to give out,” said one teacher. Eventually one of the teachers fulfilled her task, but no children were enrolled in school because the parents wanted to wait to return to their home schools, a dream that would not be possible. The fearful attitudes would continue to be an issue throughout the recovery.

The concept of reagency as an adaption to the construct of agency is important to understand the affect of guests, such as the Katrina children, have on their host communities. Reagents have “their capacity to take part in or bring about a reaction, but not one that is under their control” (Shrum 726). This concept fits the Katrina children as guests in host communities because they are able to start a process of change in the communities around them, but the host communities dictate how the change will progress. Regretfully for the Katrina children, the initial impression in the media of Katrina families as rioters would spark reactions negative reactions in host communities.

Even one year later, walking into one of the larger FEMA trailer sites is a disturbing experience. The park is completely surrounded with fencing, and a guard house is at the entrance. Dressed in black t-shirts and khaki military pants, the guards have black handguns strapped to their thighs. After checking our identification, we pass the gates. As we drive down the road, we see row upon row of travel trailers. Three guards march past on the other side of the gravel road. The bright white skin and close-cropped hair of the guards is in stark contrast to black skin of most of the residents. I ask the guards why they are there, and one says, “We have to protect the community,” indicating with his hand the community outside the gates of the FEMA trailer park.

The Children Meet Their Peers

“We just doing our thing,” said the young boy near the educational trailer. The trailer park is sparse. A full-size trailer is set up as the educational center, and a large tent is set up as the congregation point. On this night, no officially sanctioned events are scheduled for the trailer and tent, but a little past the tent near some bushes I see a few car headlights. There, in the headlights a group of children dance as they listen to songs. Despite the availability of official space, the children have created their own play space in this area near the bushes, a place to relax and be themselves.

Writing about traumatic events is a risky endeavor even in the most carefully constructed writing environments (Berman). As the children found each other in the headlights near the bushes, the children formed new connections with other displaced children. In the schools of the host communities, the children had pressure to explain themselves and why they were in this new community; the children would respond to this pressure with some resistance.

Ochs and Capps describe narrative resistance as the means that a speaker uses to counter a certain narrative; narrative resistance can take the form of minimal feedback, ridicule, denial, or counterversions. Each of these aspects was on display in the stories of the Katrina children, as the following brief examples show.

Minimal feedback is evident by the wide disparities in the reflections that they write about their experiences. One is only two sentences while another is several pages long. Given that the children in the FEMA park underwent the same writing process together, this variation is evidence of resistance to writing the narrative. One girl ends her letter with “That’s my story.” She looks to me with a serious expression beyond her twelve years and says, “That’s all you need to know,” quite an effective way of ending discussion of the topic.

Ridicule and denial were mostly shown in the conversations with the children. A child uses ridicule to stop questions about her status by stating that those who were not affected would never understand. Denial is effectively ends discusses about the events. One girl denied the prevailing narrative of her host community that she had undergone anything extraordinary by saying that it was “No big deal.”

Presenting counterversions is a way for the children to resist, but creating a story that meets the demands of their host communities is a way to deflect questions. Several students speak of creating stories to satisfy the host community. These stories present more adventure and excitement than the children really felt. One boy states, “This is the fake story that I decided to tell everyone when we evacuated to Memphis.” Another child counters a prevailing tragic stereotype that a teacher was trying to impose on her by stating, “We lost a few things, but I still have my family, and that is what is important.” The children adapt to the expectations of their audience to reveal part of their story while also satisfying the audience demand for tragedy and adventure.

The children often report the speech of others in their writing as justification for their feelings. “My mom was sad because she didn’t know what to do or where to go,” wrote one child as she explained the hopelessness of her situation. Other quoted speech is used for dialogue that is impossible to be an actual quote, but its use shows how the child interpreted the messages. For example, one child inserts her small hometown in her memory of what the newscaster said “[my family] turned on the news and they said that Hurricane Katrina was going to hit New Orleans and Marrero, LA.” Another girl uses quotations to show how the family was thinking as one unit, “We all said, ‘Hurry up, we have to leave Friday night!’” One child’s view of Katrina centers around a conversation that he had with his father. His report of the conversation is “I asked him, ‘Why are you packing up?’ ‘Well the news said a hurricane, Category 5 is going to hit. So if you want to get your stuff go get it.’” He is silent on the details of evacuation and recovery summarizing them as “When I went back home, it was horrible.”

As a generalization, the feelings that the host community children feel can be categorized as some form of empathy. The children express regret, sorrow, or fear about the hurricane. The undisplaced children seem to imagine how they would feel if the disaster happened to them. Their empathy is expressed structurally by personal pronouns, and it is expressed thematically by the connection that the children express.

The connection to the affected areas can take several forms. The first form is an actual connection. In this form, the children know someone affected, and they state this connection. For example, one girl from Massachusetts has an aunt who lives in New Orleans while another states that she has a friend whose grandparents live in an affected area. Other children go to great lengths to state their personal connection by imagining a connection to celebrities, political figures, and movie characters. The second form of connection is a connection of an object in the child’s life with an object that was affected by the storm. An example is the concern of the children for the pets affected by the storm. Both the displaced and undisplaced children mix themselves and their environment into the stories that surround them or are imposed on them.

The Children Meet Themselves

Looking at James Peacock and Dorothy Holland’s division of the life-story into “life” and “story,” the children’s stories reveal a part of their perceptions of life (369). Ochs and Capps write of the mix of self in narratives and from their phenomenologist perspective, events only become real through experience (22). The letters of the Katrina children emphasize that in narratives, people create themselves. The children process the storm, the media, and their peers. Taking lessons, words, and ideas from each, the children create their life-story.

Looking at the representations of the children of themselves, the children seem to view themselves as unified wholes. Rather than compartmentalized beings, they view themselves as integrated, coherent wholes. In the same fashion, the children all seem to have developed an integrated, coherent narrative of their hurricane experience. A response that stated that the hurricane experience was too complex to relate did not seem to be an acceptable answer. One child most closely expresses this response by describing her pre-evacuation state and her return to Louisiana without mentioning what occurred in between her pre-evacuation and return. She speaks as if the time away from Louisiana was a dream-like experience, when one awakes dreams and nightmares quickly disappear. The future of the children is never listed with certainty, and they do not seem compelled to relate a happy ending, so some end with “I might have to live in a FEMA trailer. Please be my friend.” Several of the children emphasize the certainty of their present lives by focusing on the concrete needs such as electricity. Other delved into the incomprehensible nature of the devastation. Ochs and Capps write of the desire to balance the need to acknowledge the diverse understanding of the story along with the desire to write one coherent solution (41). These competing desires are displayed in these stories.

Examining two other dimensions of the narrative self, temporality and point-of-view, as identified by Ochs and Capps, the temporal nature of this narrative is evident in the letters. The children frequently start in the present tense with a description of their feelings. Then the children skip to the past with a narrative of initially seeing the hurricane damages. Finally the children talk of the hurricane itself. With the story-telling in reverse order, the children adapt time to fit their perceptions of the events. Other children’s writing compresses the time: “When Katrina was over, two days after the streets were dry, we went to my grandparent’s house in Lafayette, Louisiana” compresses the child’s actual evacuation story of a week in the house." Similarly in the stories, the passage of time is vague: “Then we came home to Marrero, Louisiana. We had minimal damage.Our whirly bird fell off and made a hole in our roof. And our whole back porch flew off and went into grandma’s house. The only reason I was happy is we had electricity.” This passage starts in the simple past and is followed by the evaluation of this past condition. The third sentence is written in the past but is speaking of the past perfect and would typically be written “had fell off and had made.” The fourth sentence is also is this implied past prefect. The fifth sentence has a vague time period where the period of happiness is indeterminate and open.

The point-of-view of the child can vary from the self-image of a helpless child to a responsible person. One boy states that “The tiles needed to be pulled up, so I helped my Paw-paw, John.” From this point of view, the boy takes the role of knowing when the tiles needed to be replaced. Another makes the statement that “We had minimal wind damage.” He then proceeds to describe damage that includes his porch hitting another house and his roof having holes in it. Similarly, another girl says she speaks for herself and the entire people of Louisiana in describing the loss suffered from the hurricane. These examples seem to point to the children appropriating the assessments and speech of others.

The children seem to cling to some chunks of higher register language that they use to express feelings that are hard to describe. These phrases do not reflect what is typically expected in children’s writing. Unsure what to say, they write, “Please send them my regards and well wishes,” and include phrasings such as “thoughts and prayers.” The children cling to formulaic mottos such as “Keep up the good work,” “We, also, cannot wait to get New Orleans back to normal,” and “lived happily ever after.”


Listening to the radio two years after Katrina, I heard an advertisement for a helpline for those affected by Hurricane Katrina (Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals). Asking everyone affected to seek help, the message was clear. The voice that sounded like a New Orleanian said, “Just talk and be heard.” I thought, “Finally, they got it right after two years.” Then the news report that followed the advertisement stated that the FEMA trailer park where the children live who taught me so much was being closed before the residents were ready to move. “The host communities still have more to learn,” I thought. “The initial impressions of the children of Katrina live on.”

The children of Katrina integrated and rejected the influences of their peers, their media, and their government to create a story of their experience that is coherent to them and acceptable to each of these parties. This analysis has pointed to the overt and covert messages that were sent to the children by each party. Hopefully, future interactions with those affected by disasters will more carefully consider the journey of those affected by the disaster.

The children I met have mostly settled into racially and socio-economically segregated enclaves. A few years after the disaster they are still being buffeted by government directives and helpers’ advice. Some have adopted identities conforming to their new host communities; others have developed an identity in defiance of the host community. Through this study, I learned that the complex forces of language, narratives, institutions, and life experiences intermix. Even as institutional forces make them tell a story, the children of Katrina use rhetorical techniques and practices to resist. They have a desire to truly make their story how they want and when they are ready. What they put on the page is there to please those around them; when they retell the experience from their heart, in their own medium, the story becomes their own.

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