When Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast port of Biloxi, Mississippi, it killed 52 people and destroyed homes, historic buildings, and two brand-new schools. But the storm may have done some of its worst damage invisibly—to the minds and spirits of Biloxi’s children. One student poet writes of August 29, 2005, the day Katrina made landfall: “A morning of thunder/ A morning of rain/ A morning of sorrow/ A morning of pain.”
For this book, children’s author Barbara Barbieri McGrath has collected writings, drawings, and paintings by Biloxi public school students who endured Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. “[O]ne of the important ways children heal,” McGrath remarks in introducing the collection, “is through the arts.” If that is true—and there is no reason to doubt it—thena lot of healing is reflected in these pages.
Most of the pictures are primitive in terms of draftsmanship, but have great emotional power nonetheless. In some, houses, cars, mailboxes, trees, and fenceposts careen through the sky, as if the law of gravity had been suspended during the storm. In others, raindrops shaped like fat little bombs or long, deadly looking spikes fall fast and thick from malicious clouds. You get the impression from the drawings and paintings that the children must have felt as disoriented as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz—only, as one art teacher points out, they had no ruby slippers to click.
The children’s writings also reveal the struggle to comprehend the seemingly incomprehensible, often by comparing the nightmarish sights and sounds of Katrina to the familiar and pedestrian. “First, siding was flying everywhere,” 3rd grader Beatriz Cruz recalls. “Shingles were falling like pancakes. Everything got peeled like an orange inside and outside.” Older students tend to resort less to similes and instead look for an underlying moral in the storm that so shook their world. “Everything in life is a privilege, not a right,” says 11th grader Melissa Woodruff. “And I never believed that until I lost it all.”
At the time of Katrina, the federal government dithered and fumbled, and even now during the recovery phase, it continues to fail many victims of the storm. But, as this book movingly demonstrates, art doesn’t.
Howard Good is coordinator of the journalism program at the State University of New York at New Paltz. His latest book is Inside the Board Room: Reflections of a Former School Board Member (Rowan & Littlefield Education, 2006).
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as The Storm