In the mountain town of Orocovis, Puerto Rico, children face mental health challenges in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which destroyed many of their homes and left them without power or water.

USA TODAY

OROCOVIS, Puerto Rico — Children in this mountain hamlet have seen roofs blown off their homes, endured weeks of cold dinners and hot nights and witnessed loved ones die in their living rooms.

Six weeks after Hurricane Maria roared through Orocovis on its deadly path through Puerto Rico, local leaders here fear the psychological effects of the storm on children will be long-lasting and hard to erase.

“Many of them don’t yet understand the impact,” Orocovis Mayor Jesús Colón Berlingeri said. “They don’t understand why their house doesn’t have water, why their house doesn’t have power, why it no longer has a roof.”

He added: “They need help.”

Mental health is becoming a growing concern for disaster and Puerto Rican officials. Maria, which landed here Sept. 20, was the most devastating storm to hit the island in 70 years, killing more than 50 people, displacing thousands and upending the lives of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million inhabitants.

Children who experience destructive storms are often the most vulnerable to long-term mental health effects, said Irwin Redlener, head of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and president of the Children’s Health Fund.

A study Redlener led after Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf found that one-third of children in that disaster reported to have at least one mental health problem, but fewer than half of their parents were able to access professional services. Children post-Katrina were also 4-1/2 times more likely to have serious emotional disturbances than those not affected by the disaster, the study showed.

Maria may spur even more issues, since the storm affected virtually the entire island and many family members have been so busy securing basic needs, such as food and water, that children’s needs may be overlooked, Redlener said. Most schools have been closed since the hurricane hit six weeks ago, though more are expected to reopen this week, returning some normalcy to youngsters’ lives.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and local…