The search for children scattered by Katrina


December 4, 2005


Three months after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast, the
fate of more than 1,300 children remains unknown. Until a few days ago,
Lil Joe and Kolenik Williams, brothers from New Orleans, were among the

A teenage sister living in Baton Rouge when Katrina hit called the
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children several weeks after
the Aug. 29 storm, saying she had not heard from them or from their
mother, Nicole Williams. She had little contact information for other

That left two investigators working for the center to pursue the only
lead they had one recent afternoon – the children’s father, an inmate in
New Orleans’ storm-battered jail.

As the pair, Paul M. Burke and Bill Gleason, climbed the jailhouse’s
chipped, concrete steps, they were optimistic. That quickly faded, once
inside the dreary visiting area.

The father, Joseph Jackson, speaking via a telephone through a glass
partition, shook his head back and forth as Burke pressed him for
information – friends’ names, relatives’ locations, a grandmother’s phone

“Would she contact your brother?” Burke asked, anticipation in his voice.
Jackson said no. “Would she know where he’s at?” Burke pressed, leaning
closer toward the glass. “I don’t even know where he’s at,” Jackson
responded, again shaking his head.

Like so many leads, this one was a bust.

Burke and Gleason headed downstairs. “We spent days to get absolutely
nothing,” Burke said, clearly frustrated. “They could be anywhere.”

So could the hundreds of others, a situation that illustrates one of the
most anguishing and challenging consequences of the flight from Katrina.
For, while investigators believe most of the missing are safe somewhere,
the wrenching apart of their families is proving a gargantuan obstacle to

In the government’s hastily organized evacuations after New Orleans
flooded, families were scattered across 48 states. Those overseeing
evacuations, in their rush to clear people from the city, often separated
families as they pressed them onto buses, helicopters and planes, which
then went in different directions.
Documentation proving custody of children or other family ties was
destroyed or lost. Access to phones and computers was minimal, creating
gaps between the time families were separated and the time children were
reported missing. Hurricane shelters had no coordinated system for
feeding evacuees’ names, birth dates and other information into a
national database.

On top of that, many of the families were severely splintered even before
the hurricane. Parents and children had different last names. Many
children had been in the care of aunts, grandparents, great-grandparents
or unrelated guardians before the storm, and those caretakers often
lacked information crucial to finding children, such as birth dates,
names of the youngsters’ friends, recent photographs and nicknames.

“They’re scattered physically, which doesn’t help, but they’re also
scattered socially,” said Burke. “When you have this sort of family
structure, it’s very difficult. When they scatter, they’re just gone.”

All of this has created a labyrinthine nightmare for investigators such
as Burke and Gleason, who can spend hours a day roaming the mangled
streets of New Orleans in search of information that could reunite
children with their families.

Burke, a retired Alaska state trooper, and Gleason, a retired Los Angeles
homicide detective, are members of Team Adam, a unit of the National
Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The group, comprised of
retired law enforcement officers from across the country, was formed 2
1/2 years ago and serves as a quick-reaction force when children vanish.

It took just hours for Team Adam members to be deployed after Katrina, a
reflection of the level of need created by the storm – initially, 4,819
children were unaccounted for.

Rewriting the rules

Bob O’Brien, director of the national center’s missing children’s
division, said tens of thousands of calls came in immediately after the
center established a special Katrina phone bank on Labor Day. Quickly, he
said, the team had to rewrite its own rules to handle the unprecedented

“Typically, when we take on a case of a missing child, we’re opening the
case based on a call from law enforcement or from the parents or legal
custodian of the child,” said O’Brien. “In Katrina, we expanded that
because of the circumstances. Whole families were disappearing. We might
have a relative who called in and said they hadn’t seen the family in six
months and hadn’t heard from them at all. We opened cases like that.”

By mid-November, the center’s Katrina-related caseload was down to about

O’Brien said some of those still missing could be dead. Identification of
bodies has been slow, because of the poor condition of so many of them.
But most of the children, he said, probably are safe but separated from
relatives or guardians, who because of the haphazard evacuation cannot
find them.

They might be in foster care or staying with friends or Good Samaritans.
But no one can be sure until they are found, and accomplishing that has
become more difficult as shelters close and as those searching, or being
searched for, shift locations.

The problem is likely to worsen when the federal government stops paying
for hotel rooms for evacuees, who will be forced to move yet again. Most
states have been given a Dec. 15 cutoff date for hotel payments, but some
were given until Jan. 7.

“It’s like eating an elephant sandwich,” said Gleason of chasing down
leads across various states and gleaning information from family members
who often don’t communicate much in the best of times.

Tracking them down

The Williams’ case was one such example.

Two of Nicole Williams’ children live with her mother in Texas. Another,
a 17-year-old with a baby of her own, lives in Baton Rouge. Only
6-year-old Joseph, known as Lil Joe, and 1-year-old Kolenik were living
with their mother in New Orleans.

It was the 17-year-old who reported the youngest ones missing.

The key to finding them was to find Nicole Williams, and one way to find
her was to find their father.
The jailhouse meeting with Jackson took two days to arrange, and it
underscored the difficulties of nailing down reliable information.
Jackson, for example, said he and Nicole Williams were married, something
the investigators did not know but that could affect the surname she used
if she had applied for post-storm assistance. He said Kolenik’s name was
spelled differently – Colnik – than what the case file contained,
something that could prove important if the children had been enrolled in
school somewhere.

It was their fifth stop of the day, which had begun hours earlier in
Baton Rouge, where Team ADAM volunteers each morning receive case files
and head into the field. Most files contain scant information gleaned
from phone calls and e-mails from those who have filed reports. Often,
information is limited to the child’s last known address or the name and
suspected address of a relative. Many lack photographs.

“Phones are hit and miss, so we spend a lot of time driving around, going
from address to address, knocking on doors,” Gleason said.

Even with a GPS device in their car, the going was slow as they traversed
the bleak and barren post-flood landscape.

Three months after the storm, some roads remained impassable. Streets
signs were blown away or bent at odd angles. Numbers were hard to find on
the broken-down houses.

Most missing children come from the most heavily damaged parts of the
city – the poor and working-class areas – and buildings there still bear
the scrawls of search-and-rescue teams. “Dog prints inside,” read the
message on one door. “Dead cat,” read another, the grim words adding to
the dismal nature of the investigators’ task.

“There’s nobody at this address,” Gleason said as they arrived at one
damaged house on the end of a cul de sac, where 11-year-old LaChristina
Taylor, for which the center had no photograph, had reportedly been
living with her grandfather. That was all Gleason and Burke knew of the
little girl.

They updated the file, and the next step, for another day, would be to
try to find out where the grandfather had gone.

“These are the kind of days that I get back and everybody gives me crap
because I didn’t find anything,” Burke said. “It’s not like we’re not
looking. It’s really frustrating.”

A successful find

Burke and Gleason then headed toward another part of town, where the aunt
of a missing 11-year-old boy lived. The boy’s mother was in jail. His
father, who reported him missing, lives in Georgia but thought his son
was with the aunt, who had been told to expect the investigators.

As Burke and Gleason approached a home, they saw a woman sitting on the
second-floor porch talking into her cellular phone. It was the woman,
known only as Aunt Wanda, and as the men got out of the car she put down
the phone and pulled out her identity documents.

“I’m his auntie!” she said anxiously. Then, she produced the missing boy,
Jeremy, who apparently had no idea he was considered missing.

Burke and Gleason stayed just long enough to verify his identity, then
headed off, grateful at having resolved one case but cognizant of the
heaps of others that remain open.

“I would hope,” Burke said when asked if he believed all the cases would
be resolved. “I have to hope.”
Then, as they drove toward another address that turned out to be an
abandoned house, Burke’s phone rang and he let out a “whoop!” Nicole
Williams’ mother had been found in Texas, and she had provided a new
phone number for her daughter.

The next day, Nov. 16, the case was declared resolved.

Nicole Williams, Lil Joe and Kolenik had survived the hurricane and
floods by holing up in a high-rise building. When the water receded,
Williams led the children to the convention center. There, they boarded
an evacuation bus to Houston, spent time in a shelter, and in November
got vouchers that enabled them to rent an apartment.

Throughout all of this, Williams, in a recent phone interview, said she
had tried to contact family members but that the constant moving, the
lack of a phone, and the family’s already scattered circumstances made it

When they left their home, Williams said she and the children walked
several miles to the convention center, then sat in despair with
thousands of others as buses passed them by. When, after a day and a
night, she saw a chance to board a bus, they joined the surge of people.

A police officer took Lil Joe and Kolenik away from her and put them on
the bus.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to let you separate me from my boys,’ ” Williams
says she told the officer. “They were telling me, ‘Don’t worry, everybody
is going to the same place.’ ”

Another officer intervened and let Williams join the boys, but Williams
wonders what might have happened had she not stood her ground.

“I wasn’t letting my boys out of my sight, because nobody was going to
save their lives like I would,” she said, choking back tears. “You’d have
to be a mother to know that ain’t nobody going to risk their lives like
you would to save your kids.”

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.

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