Nydea Ortega and her pet chameleon Joey.

Image: Todd Spoth

Nydea Ortega thinks the month of August hates her. On August 2, 2016, her younger brother passed away. A year and 23 days later, her home in Northeast Houston was ravaged by four-and-a-half feet of water from Hurricane Harvey.

And while the two events are unrelated, for Ortega, the circumstances can sometimes feel like too much to handle. A senior at Yes Prep North Forest High who applied to 11 colleges this year with the hope of eventually becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon, Ortega remembers leaving her home in the early hours of the morning on August 25. Save her toothbrush, a change of clothes, and her pet chameleon Joey, she would lose all of her belongings that day.

In the weeks ahead, Ortega and her parents would move between friends’ and friends of friends’ homes to escape the rising water, later to be rescued by boat and sleep in an unoccupied warehouse. She and her mother would go hours without seeing her father, fearing he too would be lost as he went to help others in need. Ultimately, about 10 days after the storm made landfall, they would return to their deluged home, take it down to the studs, and sleep in the cleanest of the wall-less rooms before deciding to leave it for good.

“Everything feels different now,” Ortega says. “It’s just overwhelming to know that my life changed drastically in two weeks.”

Ortega’s story is one of thousands like hers for families and children in the Houston area, as more than just property, but also memories, treasured belongings, and loved ones were part of Harvey’s toll.

Loss of this magnitude caused by natural disasters can have lasting impressions on children. Influenced by research on the impact of Hurricane Katrina on children in neighboring Louisiana, Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston launched the Harvey Resiliency and Recovery Program to support children through this type of grief.

The program is part of Texas Children’s Trauma and Grief Center, one of the only health service agencies in the Houston region that specializes in significant child trauma and bereavement. Established in 2017, a month after Hurricane Harvey, the medical staff at the TAG Center immediately recognized the need to help children, such as Ortega, who were suffering from storm-related trauma. 

Eleven months after its inception, the program has screened approximately 1000 children for free and in multiple languages as it continues to expand and add new clients. Dr. Julie Kaplow, director of the TAG Center and associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine, and her team provide intake services for families seeking help for a child who has experienced trauma or the death of a loved one. They also dispatch a mobile unit to areas of town hardest hit by the hurricane, staffed with bilingual therapists and assessors trained to conduct risk screening. “It has uncovered a huge need for kids in Houston,” Kaplow says.

According to Kaplow, the program is not solely focused on children who lost their homes, though they, too, may have other important needs. Rather, the Harvey Resiliency and Recovery Program is aimed at children ages 7 to 17 who are experiencing high levels of distress, not only as a result of Harvey, but from other pre-existing adversities they’ve faced. “The kids who are really suffering the most after Harvey are those who’ve experienced prior traumas and losses,” Kaplow says. These children may be unable to get out of bed, complete their homework, or participate in activities they once loved, she explains. They might avoid speaking of their circumstances or lost loved ones; they might isolate themselves altogether. Their pain can lead to nightmares or panic attacks, or worse, talk of suicide or self-harm.

Nydea applied to 11 colleges despite losing all of her school supplies and documents in the storm. Almost a year to date after Harvey hit Houston, she will start classes at her top-choice college, Bucknell University.

Image: Todd Spoth

For Ortega, her grief was manifested in what seemed like unmanageable levels of stress as she tried to “get her life back together.” With college application and scholarship deadlines quickly approaching, the loss of all her school materials and documents—things she never thought she would miss—felt monumental. “If I reflect back to it, the loss of my brother feels like way much more than this,” she acknowledges. “This was just material things, but it still feels like a lot, because I worked for some of them and they are all lost. It’s just depressing.”

Like many of the children in the program though, Ortega meets with a TAG Center counselor weekly as she works to get back on her feet. Ortega says she talks with Dr. Luana Da Silva, whom she first met after her brother’s death, about her home, her family’s losses, and anything that makes her stress boil over. Most importantly, to Ortega at least, they talk about solutions to help manage her anxiety. “[Luana] told me whenever I am stressed out to make sketches, because I like drawing,” she says. “She told me to always have a notebook and pencil to draw something or jot down my ideas, to take deep breaths and put a little pause to my life.”

Dr. Julie Kaplow (right), director of the TAG Center, and Dr. Luana Da Silva (left), Ortega’s counselor.

Image: Charles Ford

For Kaplow and her team, this is a step in the right direction. “Seeing their resiliency and how, for most of them, they’re able to adjust to their new normal, being able to help them and see that change over time—that part is almost addictive.” Kaplow pauses, then sums it up: “You watch one kid get better, and you want to continue that pattern.”

Still, like many families, the Ortegas have a long road ahead. Since abandoning their home at Mesa and Tidwell, they have been living in and renovating a rental property they own that was also damaged in the storm. According to Nydea, there are still a number of projects on their to-do list there. But finally, there has been a bit of good news. This August she’ll start classes at her top choice college, Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. 

When we first spoke with Nydea, she feared the financial setbacks of massive home repairs would leave her unable to attend—her years of dedication and hard work potentially awash.  But by May, with the help of a financial aid package and an additional student loan, she was able to put down her deposit. All that was left to do was to pass her finals, attend Senior Signing Day, and graduate. And still, despite everything she has been through in the Augusts of past, in a way that both shows her age and beyond-her-years maturity, Ortega, retains a bit of optimism: “‘After a hurricane comes a rainbow,’ like Katy Perry says.”

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