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Weathering the storm that won’t go away

A Gulf Coast family lives in a trailer behind their flood-damaged home.

Arnold Spokane, professor of education and psychology, and two doctoral candidates landed in muggy Biloxi, Mississippi back on Sept. 4. While riding from the airport to their rental car dealership, the shuttle driver inquired about the weather on the flight. “Did it rain?” she asked. They had rain here, she told them, and in the distance she saw lightning and heard low rumble of thunder. “I don’t like bad weather,” she said.

The television at the newly reopened Italian restaurant displayed a large swirling hurricane approaching Mexico. As the students and their professor finished their pasta, the waitress mentioned that the sky looked threatening, but “at least it wasn’t a hurricane” she joked. The local Fox news station provides a weather update every few minutes. As the meteorologist pointed to potential storms brewing in the tropical waters, he consoles his listeners that they are nothing to worry about yet.

“Katrina is still here,” says Jeff Bennett, Center Director of the Gulf Coast Community Mental Health Center. “It’s been two years since the wind and the waves, but this storm won’t go away for a long time.”

Spokane, Ryan Weatherford and Anju Kaduvettoor met with Bennett to follow up their previous volunteer efforts on the Gulf Coast. During the three-day trip, Spokane gleaned information about the long-term effects of Hurricane Katrina for his research on disaster recovery and mental health.

Two years ago, Spokane was deployed to the Gulf Coast for Hurricane Katrina relief twice with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and he has enlisted as a Disaster Mental Health Volunteer for the American Red Cross.

No one is unaffected by disaster

During their three-day visit to the Mississippi Coast, the students and professor spoke with various community leaders, including an assistant chief of police, an elementary school principal, a pastor and several volunteer camp staff members.

Spokane’s research and experience taught him two things. First, that no one is unaffected by a disaster. “Secondly, most people recover quite well,” he says, “Their natural resiliency, strength and resources are sufficient for them to recover from even the worst disasters with some support, but people who are predisposed to illness or have pre-existing conditions are more vulnerable. Those who are hit the hardest, can least afford it.”

Post-disaster counseling must help a person recover from prior conditions as well as the effects of the disaster, Spokane says. But for those without pre-existing conditions, “restoring the natural supports in the environment can be more helpful than individual interventions,” he says.

These supports include friends, family and community centers like churches and neighborhoods. These connect people in a similar location and frequently rely on buildings. When disaster destroys buildings, it could also destroy the communities that meet in these centers.

Spokane specializes in effects of the built environment, including buildings, roadways and architecture, on the mental and social health of a community. This research applies particularly well to disasters that destroy the built environment, like Hurricane Katrina did.

“While we can do some counseling and ensure mental health follow-up and continuity for people who need it the vast majority of the community, with some assistance, can recover itself,” he says. “When you add the architecture, the built environment, that helps recreate community.”

“I’m working on is a piece tying the architecture to mental health in community restoration following a disaster,” Spokane says. “It is a comprehensive approach that merges mental health and physical design.”

An ongoing need

During his most recent Gulf Coast trip, Spokane realized that “we need to address both the short-term and long-term effects of disaster,” he says. “My original assumption was that two years was enough (for a community to recover) was wrong.”

Every Monday immediately after the storm, Bennett hosted debriefing meetings at the Gulf Coast Mental Health Center for mental health volunteers from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), SAMHSA and the American Red Cross. Today, most of the mental health volunteers have returned home, and Bennett’s pre-Katrina staff of approximately 230 has dwindled to around 170.

But the need for mental health works has risen. Suicide rates, domestic disputes and substance abuse have increased, especially among those living in trailer parks, says Michael Prendergast, the assistant chief of police in Waveland, Mississippi. His small town bore the brunt of Katrina’s force, sustaining a storm surge of 30 feet that destroyed many homes, businesses and city buildings—including the police department.

Spokane believes that some of these mental health problems could have been tempered or avoided by providing better temporary housing. Families living in FEMA travel trailers were uprooted from their normal neighbors and communities to live among strangers, and in some cases, the trailer parks were 20 or 30 minutes away from their previous homes, making it difficult for people to rebuild.

One of the FEMA trailer parks in Mississippi.

The FEMA trailer parks and tent camps could have been designed differently. Instead of grouping the trailers in a more community-friendly circle, “the trailers were lined in military-like rows, with no thought to the implication of the set up,” Spokane says. Cars raced along the gravel rows that often doubled as streets and children’s playgrounds. Families live in cramped quarters—four to six people to a tiny trailer—with little to no privacy. They are so small, Bennett says, that “you can go to the bathroom and cook breakfast at the same time.”

“These are issues we could have thought through in the beginning if we understood the connection between mental health and the arrangement post-disaster for housing people,” Spokane says.

"Katrina cottages"

The current housing situation is slowly improving. All of the staff and 30 percent of the students at Waveland Elementary have moved into their homes, says principal Donna Torres. Last year, only 5 percent of the students lived in their homes. Residents also have the option to purchase “Katrina Cottages,” which are small, prefabricated single-family homes.

Although some of the commercial and residential districts are being rebuilt, many are not. Prendergast estimates that only half of its original population of 10,000 has returned.

Between sky-rocketing insurance cost and the high cost of labor and supplies needed to rebuild, low income housing is virtually non-existent. Instead, new, expensive condos are appearing along the ocean front. After the storm, state ordinances changed to allow gambling onshore, and the casinos scrambled to reopen on dry ground. The coast line will become a cross between Atlantic City and Miami Beach, Spokane says. These gambling houses may attract visitors with money but will not restore the community.

At the elementary school, the loss of social connection is evident. “I don’t think the community is there,” Torres says. The community members who returned did so because they did not know anything else. “This is home, and you just don’t leave home,” Torres says.

Not everyone returning to the area calls the Gulf Coast home. Once Torres’ secretary recognized every person who walked through the door; today she frequently sees strangers. Trailer parks house many out-of-state opportunists, often with criminal records, Prendergast says.

As they described the tedious rebuilding process, Prendergast, Bennett, Torres and other community leaders displayed lingering distress.

“Their emotion is still very much on the surface,” says Weatherford. “I wonder what that means for the community to be able to care for each other.” The support these leaders normally provide may be compromised by their own need for emotional relief.

Torres and Prendergast have found hope in the volunteer laborers who flocked to the coastal communities, providing free labor. “It’s nice to have some come alongside you with a fresh mind,” Torres says.

Over one million volunteers, many from faith-based organizations, stripped, cleaned and rebuilt damaged areas in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. In all, they provided 14 million hours of labor, according to the Sun Herald.

“Thank God for these church groups,” says Prendergast. “These church groups have been lifesavers. I am flattered by these teenagers coming to help us on spring break.”

In June, Spokane and his students will work alongside these volunteers as part of a Mental Health First Response course taught by Spokane. The course, to be held in Mississippi, will incorporate service and course work and will be available to select undergraduates, graduates, Gulf Coast mental health workers and, possibly, alumni.

--Becky Straw

Photos by Becky Straw

Posted on Tuesday, November 13, 2007

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