Children orphaned by tornadoes carry on, and grieve

Reuters News
Posted: May 28, 2011 9:58 AM
Children orphaned by tornadoes carry on, and grieve

By Verna Gates

PHIL CAMPBELL, Ala (Reuters) - Five-year-old Garrett LeClere survived the devastating twister that struck Phil Campbell, Alabama on April 27 with two broken arms and a fractured skull.

His parents did not make it. Rescuers searched for a day before finding the bodies of Jay and Amy LeClere beneath the rubble of their home.

"They are with Jesus," Garrett told Reuters this week.

Many children lost loved ones in the killer tornadoes that carved up 610 miles of Alabama last month and left 238 dead. Though there is no official state count, a Reuters review of storms victims' obituaries found that at least eight young people were completely orphaned.

For those children, it will take years to process their experience and realign with their new normal, experts said.

"The trauma is deep. The wound is deep. Being orphaned is what we call a forever loss," Dr. Jane Aronson, Chief Executive of Worldwide Orphans Foundation, said on Friday.

"You cannot tell them when to heal, and that can take a very long time."

Fundraising efforts are underway in St. Clair County, Alabama, to help three sisters who lost their parents and other relatives in a twister there.

Cicely Sanders, a 21-year-old college student, plans to care for her younger sisters, ages 14 and 18, said Kandy Smith, a retired teacher leading the effort to raise money.

The 18-year-old Sanders daughter remains hospitalized with a shattered pelvis.

Cicely "says a house isn't a home without a mom and dad, but is holding up her head and doing her best," Smith said.


Young disaster survivors often gain compassion and a higher level of moral development, said Andy McNiel, executive director of the Children's Hospital's Amelia Center in Birmingham, which specializes in trauma counseling.

But they are at a high risk for drug abuse, promiscuity and mental illness down the road if they do not properly work through their grief, McNiel said.

"Children are keen observers but poor interpreters, and there is no snake oil to take away grief," he said.

Guilt is common, though some children do not quickly express their feelings.

Young Garrett LeClere does.

"I feel sorry for my parents," he said. "They wasted their lives saving me."

There was room enough in the family bathtub for only Garrett and his sister to weather the storm in Phil Campbell. The boy remembers the tub spinning and being lifted before he landed hard 200 yards from his leveled home.

"I heard myself scream really loud. The hurt was really painful," he said.

His screams saved his life. A volunteer fire chief found Garrett covered in blood and mud and carried him in the back of a pickup to a hospital, where he remained for eight days.

Jeff McCormick, another volunteer fireman and the father of Garrett's two half-siblings, heard rumors of a rescued 5-year-old John Doe when he arrived at the LeClere home to assist in the search for his injured daughter, ex-wife and her husband.

With some persistence, he cracked through privacy laws to locate Garrett and obtained a court order to become legal guardian of the blue-eyed, blonde-haired boy.

McCormick, a truck driver, and his current wife have taken off work since the storm to care for Garrett. In his new home last week, the child played with a new brother, hardly slowed by the blue casts on his arms.

His 13-year-old sister watched nearby, the storm scars on her face and arms still visible. She had delivered the news to Garrett about his parents.

"He is doing real good," McCormick said. "He has his moments where he will break down and cry for 15 minutes. He takes comfort in thinking Jesus needed more angels, and his parents are looking out for him from heaven."

(Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Jerry Norton and Greg McCune)