Sunday, October 02, 2005

TRAUMATIZED


Something I think is really important to understand is how much trauma people are dealing with now and into the future. Mental health is a BIG concern. Everyone from New Orleans that I met is suffering multiple traumas at once. Almost everyone is missing at least one family member, friend, or co-worker. Not only their whereabouts are undetermined, but so is their existence –are they alive or dead? While some people were lucky and their homes are basically untouched, many, many other homes have either been lost completely or severely damaged. Whether one is a renter, a resident of a shelter, a home owner with a mortgage to pay, or someone who fully owns their home, one’s housing is in many cases unlivable as is. And most people haven’t yet been able to return to their homes to see what is left. Many don’t have the resources to return period. If and when folks do return to see their city and their homes I expect another wave of trauma will wash through them.

Then there is the medical situation. For those who made it out safely and have resources, this is a non-issue. But many folks have not been getting the health care they need. It may be that they haven’t been able to fill a regular prescription due to the lack of money or access to a clinic. They might be suffering from an injury or a health problem that came on as a result of the hurricane, or like many, they may not have had the proper health care for years, if ever. At the free Common Ground Clinic in Algiers I saw numerous folks hear for the first time that they have high blood pressure or diabetes and how to take care of themselves. Many people rely on anti-psychotic, anti-depressant, and other mental illness related medications. What happens with them when they don’t have access to their medication? The issue of physical and financial access to medical care is a huge one.

People lack food and other basic necessities as well. If one was poor before Katrina, one is even poorer now. A woman I met at the clinic was distraught as she told me she finally reached her bank by phone only to find that her account was empty. A loan company had decided to repay itself----before her money was even due. Her absolutely beautiful three-year old child played by her side. They left the clinic with a garbage bag filled with personal hygiene products and canned foods.

Many people are further traumatized by having lived through the “evacuation” and/or the wrath of the hurricane. Holed up in their closets for ten hours, trapped on a highway or stuck in a dome with tens of thousands of others, people were frightened for their lives and the lives of their loved ones.


And then there was the looting. I’m not talking about people taking things they need from stores. I’m talking about the robbery that occurred in the homes of many poor people after they evacuated and the police decided to go AWOL. I visited two big housing developments in Algiers where nearly every apartment door was standing open and the insides were turned upside down, not from the hurricane, but from thieves taking advantage of the situation. A new friend, Kevin, took some of us to one such apartment complex to check on his home. It was ransacked, as was everyone of his neighbors’ apartments. All he had left was a pair of shorts and two t-shirts. Other Algiers residents who rode out the hurricane in their individual houses spoke of the sound of frequent gun shots and cars racing down their street. They feared for their lives.





Some people feel extremely betrayed by the U.S. government’s response to the hurricane. I met folks who now feel that what they have believed about this country their entire lives is false. They feel they’ve been fooled and that makes them angry. Adjusting their perspectives from that of strong patriotism to one of intense distrust and disgust appears to be very traumatizing for them. It seems their worlds have turned upside down. Did I mention that the two people I spoke with most in depth about this voted for Bush?

The future is really uncertain. Will they find their missing loved ones? Where will they live? When will they have a job again? Is it environmentally safe to go home? Will their home get bulldozed by FEMA? When will their city be rebuilt and will they be able to live there? The stress of all these unknowns can take a big toll.

I’m emphasizing all this because I heard, saw, smelled, and felt these horrors while I was down there. I realize it’s very overwhelming to think about all of it at once. And that’s what hundreds of thousands of people from the Gulf Region are dealing directly with right now. This is real, and the effects of this hurricane and the response to it are going to last much, much longer than the news will report on it.

It’s intense. I wish we could quickly make it all better, but it’s not that easy. One person, one household at a time is what we can do. And we must do what we can.

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