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When Hurricane Sandy struck the Jersey Shore, Didi, 4, and her family were caught in a flurry of confusion as their neighborhood was evacuated to a shelter more than 100 miles from home. Then they were uprooted again, bussed to a different mega shelter with rows upon rows of cots and bustling with storm refugees and aid workers.
Didi, usually sweet and smiling, became sullen and silent. Her mother wished she could reassure her they'd be going home soon. But she had learned their modest apartment complex was flooded and unlivable.
A shortage of food and lack of nutritious options for kids beset the shelter in the days after the storm. There were no separate living areas or bathrooms for children and their families, and the atmosphere was different than Didi had ever encountered. Even Amy Richmond, a Save the Children child protection officer who had previously worked in Ethiopia and Iraq was surprised by the level of risk children faced.
Dangers All Around
Didi became silent and sullen when Hurricane Sandy hit, but returned to her usual playful self in Save the Children's Child Friendly Space in a New Jersey shelter. Photo Credit: Susan Warner
"Extra police arrived to beef up security, over concerns that rival gang members were sharing the same space. Domestic violence and substance abuse were happening in public spaces, and you had incidents like children finding empty needles on the bathroom floor. Children were also very vulnerable to exploitation and we learned that registered sex offenders were staying at some Sandy shelters," Richmond said.
"For a sensitive child like Didi, and many other children forced from their homes under great duress, shelters can be a very unsettling and potentially unsafe place."
Nearly 10 months after Sandy, Didi is thriving, recently enjoying a playdate with her older cousin, Kelly whose family was also displaced by the hurricane last October.
Save the Children brought in extra food for children and nursing mothers and set up Child-Friendly Spaces, where only children and their families were allowed. Inside Didi found a haven from the upheaval she'd experienced.
At first she would only communicate with Save the Children staff by whispering to her older cousin, Kelly, 8, to pass on what she'd said. But by the second day of tea parties, coloring and playing with other children, she warmed up, letting her sweet personality shine through. She adored playing with puppets the most, giggling at the Cookie Monster.
A Serious Need to Play
Research shows that when children are able to play and express themselves during times of great stress they are more likely to completely rebound from what they've experienced, and to do so more quickly. Didi frequently had nightmares after Hurricane Sandy, but months later it's much less common, her mom says.
Still the aftermath hasn't been easy. Didi has had a bad reaction to the mold and mildew still rife in the once flood-soaked carpets in her apartment building, and her parents can't afford to move. The medicine she now must take makes sun exposure dangerous, so she passed the summer unable to enjoy the nearby beach.
For all the struggle, Didi's mom feels thankful for the support her family received when the storm struck. "Everyone was so stressed out; we didn't know what was going on or how to explain it to our children," she said. "Just knowing they could play made me feel much more comfortable."