Lessons from the Gulf: Why Playgrounds Should Be a Priority in Disaster Zones

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When my organization announced that we were going to build a playground in the Gulf shortly after Hurricane Katrina, not everyone was happy about it. With so much devastation, some believed that a playground was the last thing people needed. Why invest time, money, and sweat into something so superfluous when residents were still struggling to get basic necessities, like shelter, food, and water?

But I have long contended that playgrounds are not superfluous, and our first post-Katrina playground build in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi proved just that. Here's how one Bay St. Louis resident, Ginny Vegas, described the playground build in Kathleen Koch's recently released book Rising From Katrina:

"The mayor cooked jambalaya, we had over 650 volunteers on a cold, wet day and they built the playground, five planter benches, five picnic tables and garbage cans in record time. There was laughing, singing, just old fashioned joy... We were awash in happiness! So many people said that it was the first uplifting day since the storm..."

Koch, a former CNN Correspondent and Bay St. Louis resident, spends a good portion of her book detailing the heartbreaking destruction that Hurricane Katrina wrought on her childhood town. She speaks of the paralyzing sense of helplessness that plagued so many residents after the storm:

"The words quick and easy were absent from the post-Katrina vocabulary. Every day, the choice was which line to stand in next. FEMA? Small Business Administration? Red Cross? And once residents reached the front of the line, the tension was racheted higher. Would their applications for living expenses, housing assistance, trailers, or other aid be approved, denied, or declared still pending? Would their records even be there? Or, as so often happened, had they gotten lost in the mind-numbing process all over again?"

Few realize that the Mississippi Gulf Coast was where Katrina hit full force and where the devastation was the worst. Nearly the entire town of Bay St. Louis was leveled; those few houses left standing suffered from severe water damage. Disaster has the potential to bring people together, but if those people lack the tools and resources to improve their situation, it can have the opposite effect. As isolation and distrust set in, communities can become fragmented and broken down.

We wanted to help reverse this maddening downward spiral by actively involving Bay St. Louis residents in a tangible process of construction. But why start with a playground?

One of the first steps toward rebuilding a community is providing the community with a place to gather, socialize, and play. Clearly, rebuilding houses in Bay St. Louis was also of eminent importance, but while a house benefits one family, a playground provides immediate benefits to everyone. Most importantly, it benefits the children. Koch points out that adults "were busy trying to replace physical objects--lost homes, cars, and possessions. [But] there was nothing anyone could do to recapture a lost childhood." Building a playground wasn't just about designing and constructing a play structure; it was also about restoring a sense of normalcy and safety for the children.

As we always do, we involved the children in the design process, and many drew their houses on top of the playground. Some drew the playground on top of a hill. Childhood behavior experts theorize that their designs spoke to a notion that the playground would represent something good, safe, and permanent--qualities children desperately need.

After seeing firsthand how the experience transformed the community, we promised to build 100 playgrounds in the areas affected by the storms. We and a total of 31,325 volunteers delivered on this promise in 2008. In many areas, the playground was the first permanent structure to be rebuilt. This August, to commemorate the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we will build our 135th and 136th playgrounds in the Gulf since the storms.

After a disaster like Katrina, sometimes it's hard to find the bright spots. Koch chronicles her personal struggles and those of her childhood friends to maintain faith in a world where so much seems to be left to chance. Yet as the subtitle of her book--How My Mississippi Hometown Lost it All and Found What Mattered--suggests, inspiration, kinship, and courage can rise from the rubble.

Learn more about KaBOOM! playground builds in the Gulf.
Visit Kathleen Koch's website to order her book, Rising From Katrina