Andrew: A child's bogyman come alive

September 04, 1992|By Isabel Wilkerson | Isabel Wilkerson,New York Times News Service

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- When Hurricane Andrew cut through Donna Melvin's apartment here, and the windows broke and the water rushed in and it felt like the world was ending, Quentin, the 3-year-old son quivering in her arms, turned to her and cried: "Mommy, make the lion stop. I don't want us to die."

She held him tighter and told him, "God is bowling."

Nine days later, Quentin will not let her out of his sight. He grabs her by the legs when darkness falls or when the wind kicks up again. He refuses to sleep by himself like he used to. He starts to cry when it rains.

Hurricane Andrew, a cruel aggressor in the view of rational adults, was the bogyman come to life for the thousands of children who survived it but lost their life's treasures: their hamsters, Nintendo games, security blankets and other childhood possessions.

If the hurricane was bad, its aftermath has been worse. These children wake day after day to helicopters overhead, play in wastelands of dead trees and twisted metal, fight mosquitoes and dehydration and sleep outside on sometimes damp cots or in shelters or, if they are lucky, doubled up with relatives.

In their living conditions, they have more in common with children in Sarajevo than with children in Tallahassee. They do not worry about what kinds of crayons or lunch boxes they will get for the new school year. They worry about when they will eat again. They do not talk about cartoons and new gym shoes. They talk about their fears of death and losing their parents.

Jananne Hernandez, a 10-year-old girl whose family is camped out near the wreckage of their trailer, has taken to drinking from a baby bottle. She cannot sleep at night and is rarely seen without Jackie, her stuffed doll, the only thing she saved from the hurricane.

Tyie Serrano, a 12-year-old still living in her family's storm-rived house, races to the front of the bread lines that she and her mother visit each day and hordes whatever she can get, afraid there will not be any food tomorrow.

"I'm so worried," Tyie said. "Where are we going to live? What are we going to eat?"

Pedro Horta, a 14-year-old whose house is roofless and waterlogged, spends his days waiting for volunteers to bring food to the junkyard that was once his neighborhood.

"The days are empty," Pedro said. "Everything's empty. Sometimes I think we're going to vanish."

Therapists say the children are showing signs of the kind of post-traumatic stress experienced by soldiers and survivors of plane crashes, the depression and fear that spring from exposure to an event outside the normal realm of experience.

"We are seeing crying spells; we are seeing nightmares," said Dr. Jeffrey T. Guterman, a Fort Lauderdale family therapist who has volunteered to counsel hurricane victims. "The children are experiencing elements of denial, anger, rage, depression. Even preschoolers are sad, angry and frustrated."

The symptoms may linger for months or even years, specialists say, as the children relive the terror of watching their communities blown away by a force they did not understand.

"It is the death of things the way you knew it," said Pamela Scott Matthews, director of outpatient services at Charter Hospital in Miami, which is providing free counseling to victims.

In Dade County, where the opening of school has been postponed until Sept. 14, about 30 of 237 school buildings were severely damaged by the hurricane, leaving 10,000 children with no school to return to.

As many hurricane victims move beyond the initial gratification of being alive, reality is setting in. And many children are beginning to replay in their minds the night they huddled in closets while walls and ceilings caved in, the night when, as Pedro Horta said, they were "praying and asking every single saint to stop it."

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