HOUMA, La. — Inside the refugee tent, an air conditioner rattles. Staticky music spits out of small speakers. About a hundred people talk and laugh loudly over ladled lunch.
At a table in the back of the tent, a mother leans over her son as if to shield him from the noise. He stares at a page full of clocks without hands, a metaphor for their lives these days. She's trying to teach him how to tell time. She has to speak directly into his ear so he can hear.
Gypsy Collins and her son Brandon Parfait spend most of their days trying to find normalcy in a tent city. School work is part of their afternoon routine. Parfait has Down Syndrome, and since Hurricane Ida, which caused chaos in the southeastern Louisiana school system, Collins has been "home schooling" him.
Even though they don't have a home.
In Houma and the surrounding areas along the Cajun Coast, Hurricane Ida devastated the lives of the residents beginning on Aug. 29.
At least 300,000 students were out of school immediately following Ida. School buildings across southeastern Louisiana suffered significant damage, and with much of the area without water and electricity a month after the storm, 70,000 students remained displaced through September.
Students returned to some campuses in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, the hardest-hit areas, in mid-October. Many of them had to share facilities because some buildings are too damaged to reopen this school year.
Almost three months after Ida, the streets of Houma are lined with severed tree limbs. Blue tarps cover gaping holes in seemingly every other roof. Cars sit abandoned. Street signs jut at odd angles, ravaged by the wind. A spray-painted sheet of plywood in front of a house reads: "Looters will be shot twice."
Residents dream about the day those exterior problems will be fixed.
But some families are dealing with problems that aren't visible to outsiders. These are the families of special needs children.
Getting back to education has proven difficult
These children need individual attention, special programs, medication and routine — all of which can be difficult to find. These kids generally struggle with remote learning, and they have trouble adjusting to minor changes to their day. Now they've got to process what feels like double the trauma, dealing with the loss of their homes and their old way of life.
"It's already hard enough for them to learn," said Randa Smith, who knew Collins and Parfait through the Terrebonne Parish Special Olympics program.
Before Ida, Parfait, 20, went to South Terrebonne High School and had a 1:1 aide who guided him through the day. He and his family were happy and doing well. Since the hurricane, which destroyed his home in nearby Chauvin, Parfait has been doing school work in the tent with his mother.
Collins chose not to send Parfait back to school because his former campus (South Terrebonne) is closed, damaged in the hurricane. His former classmates are now going half day at H.L. Bourgeois High. They are taking split-day classes, where half the students are home by 1 p.m. and the rest are home after 6 p.m.
Collins doesn't want her son coming home in the dark.
Parfait has asthma, and Collins doesn't want to send him to a school with mildew issues. The parents fear all the schools, since Ida, have mildew issues.
"I ain't no teacher," Collins said.
Parfait, who was reading at least 50 words before Ida, is now struggling to read books he had once skated through.
"He has regressed," Collins said.
Regressed is the operative word among many parents of special needs students.
Home late at night
Jella Breaux, who has an autistic son, Ashur, said he has regressed even though his school is up and running almost normally. "He has become more aggressive, more impatient," she said.
Breaux thinks it's unfair that her son has his old routine back when other students in Houma have their lives turned upside down.
Angelique Nicholas has a 16-year-old son Logan, who has ADHD and attends Terrebonne High. She said he's lucky because his split classes are in the morning.
"I feel so bad for the kids on the bayou," Nicholas said. "They must not get home until late at night."
It's like Hurricane Ida is still pounding, making her family's life more difficult.
"It makes it 10 times harder to adjust," she said. "These kids have a hard enough time with change. I think it is going to be like this for awhile."
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Not enough class time
Nicholas is sure her son has regressed because the classes are only about 30 minutes.
"He likes civics, but they finish their lesson plan, and there is no time for discussion," she said. "The class has to move on. My son could get left behind."
Many of the parents of special needs students said the schools re-opened before they were fully cleaned and before a better plan for buses and split days was in place.
"They need to get the schools cleaned," Breaux said. "They started too soon."
How do parents find medicine?
Katelyn Castleberry huddled under the stairs with her two boys, both autistic, while Hurricane Ida passed over their home in Metairie. They saw a window sucked out by the strong winds and rushed to pull it back in and created a barricade to limit water getting into the house.
They decided to get out the next day, spending the next 15 days traveling to Airbnbs across Mississippi and Alabama. Above and beyond the struggles to find food and shelter for her family was Castleberry's fight to get her son's prescriptions filled.
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Her son Ramsey's seizure medication was sitting on a shelf in Walgreen's in Metairie that was "trashed" and without power, Castleberry said, and pharmacies in other states needed to get approval from his psychiatrist when almost no one in southeastern Louisiana had cell service.
"Getting their medication filled was unholy," Castleberry said. "Everyone's hands were tied. I went buck wild. We were gone 15 days. For 10 days I was hustling one thing or another."
Two campers, and a new life
Pattie Francis' two children were on vacation with their grandparents when Ida ripped through their home in Chauvin. Francis and her husband stayed at his parents' house next-door to their trailer through the worst of the storm.
"We watched it (our house) shred from my mother-in-law's house," Francis said. "After the storm it's mostly just floor. What walls were standing were shredded."
They bought two campers as soon as they could, and now her family of four and some extended family members are living in them on their property.
They're still trying to figure out a new routine, with son Lionel and daughter Amethyst, a senior and sophomore at South Terrebonne High, going to school about 30 minutes away at H.L. Bourgeois at noon every day.
Amethyst is diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia as well as some autistic characteristics, and she's struggling to process how and why her world has changed since the storm.
They replaced her trombone, which had been infiltrated by black mold, and are still replacing clothes and trying to find normalcy cooking dinner on a hot plate in a camper and getting home from school so late.
"Their anxiety is high," Francis said. "Amethyst is so stressed out. She gets so broken about the smallest thing."
There isn't an end in sight either. Francis expects to keep living in the campers even after the wreckage of her home is finally cleared away.
"We don't have the courage to try again (to rebuild)," she said.
Reach Keith Sharon at 615-406-1594 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KeithSharonTN. Contact children's issues reporter Leigh Guidry at Lguidry@theadvertiser.com or on Twitter @LeighGGuidry.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: In hardest hit areas, Ida's wrath rages on among special needs students