Trauma not always obvious in children who fled hurricane

BY CASSANDRA JARAMILLO
DALLAS MORNING NEWS/TNS

DALLAS – As Hurricane Harvey closed in on them, Jose Lerma got his three young sons together and told them they were going on a road trip. It would be one week long, maybe a little more.

Josiah Anderson, 6, of Beaumont, Texas, sings along to music as T-Mobile employees Karmen Brown, left, and Vanessa Ibarra, right, dance to the music outside the Walnut Hill Recreation Center, a shelter for hurricane Harvey evacuees in Dallas on Aug. 30.
(VERNON BRYANT/DALLAS MORNING NEWS/TNS)

“Just you wait, we are going to go to the zoo!” Lerma told Eduardo, 8, Jesus, 6, and Yovanni, 3, as they prepared to leave.

What he didn’t tell the kids was that he was afraid. That he was worried about their home, which he had built by hand in Angleton, just south of Houston. That they had no savings stashed away for expenses.

“They didn’t understand what was happening. They’re little,” Lerma said in Spanish.

Adventure will end
For children, an evacuation can be little more than an unplanned voyage.

Their parents — with the good intentions of not wanting to scare the kids — often omit details of the perils they face.

Which is why this past week parents were talking about how they’re worried about their homes, their fears of belongings being lost, the pets they left behind and bills that are stacking up — while at the same time, their children played. Or complained about being bored.

Even though, experts say, the adventure will eventually end, and trauma could lie ahead.

Hurricane veterans
Jose and Yesenia Campos are hurricane veterans. They fled Angleton during Rita in 2005 and were trapped in traffic for 24 hours.

That was before they had their four children. This time, they decided to leave their home before the weather got bad. That way, while the sun was still out, their kids wouldn’t get a sense of the danger.

The parents told them that they were going to be away for three days.

“We didn’t want to tell them what was going on because we don’t want to freak them out,” Yesenia Campos said. “Since they didn’t see the bad weather, I don’t think they’re scared.”

Like a vacation
The family traveled caravan-style with their grandparents, aunt and uncle. It made the kids feel like it was a family vacation.

At a shelter, the fun has continued. When the Campos kids don’t have visits from magicians or therapy dogs, they play baseball or race each other around the green fields of the surrounding areas.

Seven-year-old Victor plays with his brothers, Jose, 9, and Sebastian, 6, and his sister Arleth, who is just 1.

“Mommy, we meet new friends here,” Victor tells his mom.

A little rap music
Similarly, Josiah Anderson, 6, didn’t question his mom, Patricia Poullard, on why they traveled hundreds of miles away from their hometown of Beaumont to the Walnut Hill Recreation Center.

Instead, last Wednesday, he had turned a T-Mobile disaster relief van into a stage.

He asked the T-Mobile employees, who had microphones, if he could rap along to some of his favorite artists, like DJ Khaled and Drake.

One employee connected his iPhone to play the music, and the rest began clapping and singing along.

‘A slower trauma’
Such scenes might look as if children are immune to anxiety.

But Dallas family psychologist Ken Wilgus said that in disasters, children experience trauma differently than adults.

Children may look happy if they didn’t see damage firsthand, but it’s important for parents to appropriately explain the reality of the situation. “Camping” or “vacation,” he said, will get old for the kids.

“Up to this point, it might be fun,” Wilgus said. “The issue is that this is not over. It’s a slower trauma that they will experience. Uprooting in a new place can be difficult for children, but for a couple of weeks, it’s a blast.”

Indeed, Jose Campos’ son Eduardo is starting to worry about the family’s two horses back at home. “Do they have enough food?” he asked his father in Spanish.

A sad face
Eduardo has a hard time describing how he feels. When asked to draw something that reflected his emotions, he made a sad face in a notebook.

Asked what he was sad about, Eduardo complained about the food. He and his younger brother, Jesus, have wanted pancakes, but their mother Carmela can’t make them in the shelter.

The kids still don’t know that on Aug. 27, their entire house flooded. There’s at least 2 or 3 feet of water in their home. The parents don’t know how to tell their kids.

“I told them we were going to see all the sights” in Dallas, Lerma said. “Now they’ve been asking me ‘Hey! Why are we just sitting in this place?’ ”

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