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Finding faith, hope and courage in Katrina’s wake

Children's bicycles were amid the rubble in Gulfport, Miss.

Arnold R. Spokane, professor of counseling psychology, spent part of his recent winter break in a Mississippi jail.

But it was his choice and it turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of his life.

Inspired by co-workers Arpana Inman, an assistant professor of counseling psychology, and Phil Clauser, director of administration for the College of Arts and Sciences, who both had taken paid leave last semester to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, Spokane decided to head South to volunteer over the holidays.

At Inman’s suggestion, he called the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which was operating a disaster emergency response effort funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Two days after Christmas, Spokane was in Gulfport, Mississippi—the area hardest hit by Katrina.

“The eye wall of Katrina hit in Waveland, Mississippi, just west of Gulfport,” Spokane says. “Thus, this area was where the worst of the damage occurred, including storm surge of 40 feet (the highest on record in the United States). Although Katrina was only a Category 3 storm, the barometric pressure was at a record level inside the storm—thus making for an unusually large surge.

“We were housed in a juvenile detention facility that had been used to house a number of emergency workers, police, fire, etc. We lovingly called it our `Lockup.’ We were the last of multiple teams to be deployed to Gulfport. In all, roughly 500 mental health workers were deployed to the Gulf Coast.”

From “Katrina Krud” to “Hurricane Hypertension”

A roof lies in the wreckage in Gulfport, Miss.

Spokane worked directly with Gulf Coast Mental Health, a local mental health authority that was working short-staffed (many had left the area permanently or taken other jobs) and was under enormous pressure. Teams of mental health professionals worked with evacuees to help them get the mental health care they needed.

“Initially, evacuees were sent to safe locations out of the storm area, and then later to cruise ships, hotels and apartments, or tent cities that were set up by Navy Seabees, and organized by FEMA and several church groups such as the Lutherans who also set up free medical facilities, food banks, etc.,” Spokane says. “We worked in pairs at our site. I was deployed to trailer parks and tent camps some of the time, and to MASH-like free medical clinics at other times. Once an evacuee got a tent, the next step was to arrange for emergency food, clothing etc. After that, came assignment to a trailer or other temporary housing.”

Much of the work of Spokane’s team involved handling crisis calls from outreach workers, and consultation with physicians in the medical clinics. Other teams went with families as they returned to their homes for the first time.

“We worked 12-hour days for two weeks. We commonly encountered symptoms of physical and emotional exhaustion, post-trauma anxiety, depression and grief, general disorientation, etc.,” Spokane says.

The medical clinic frequently saw upper respiratory problems (the medical staff called it “Katrina Krud”) attributable to black mold, and sharp increases in stress-related hypertension of 200/100 or greater (dubbed “Hurricane Hypertension”). The emergency room at the local hospital initially saw 400 patients a day for mental health-related problems.

Though the hours were long, the work was rewarding as many of the people who Spokane and his team helped had lost everything.

“We received an emergency referral from a couple with two children in Gulfport, who had lost their home and the husband had his own business that he had built for 20 years, which was also lost completely,” Spokane says. “Exhausted and depressed, they had returned from a family member’s home in Northern Mississippi two weeks following the storm, and had lived initially with their mother, who also lived in Gulfport, but whose home was still habitable.”

However, as a result of storm damage, an electrical fire broke out in the mother’s home, and the family and the mother were living in separate FEMA trailers on the mother’s property—with little or no hope.

“The wife worked at a local factory which was heavily damaged and not expected to open until summer. The family received a FEMA allotment of $2,300 in cash, and then another allotment of $2,000. Nonetheless, they had to replace all clothes, essentials, etc. and had no visible income after the storm,” Spokane says. “The husband indicated that he simply did not have the energy to start his business over again (he was in his 50’s) in spite of an SBA loan offer. And the wife, distraught and worried about her children, indicated that she simply couldn’t go back to work right now … maybe never.

“The family evacuated as ordered just prior to the storm. My partner, a social worker, and I did three family sessions with the family, and set up ongoing mental health services and supportive social services.”

Amid all the ruin, Spokane says, there were signs of hope.

“We heard stories of great courage—volunteers from all over the U.S. helping victims to clear rubble, and treat houses for mold—ripping down wallboard, spraying for two weeks, and then rebuilding walls, sanding, etc.,” he says. “These volunteers often slept in large shelters on cots for weeks at a time, eating in mess tents and working long hours. These are the heroes of Katrina—as are local police, fire, community leaders, etc., who worked under dreadful conditions.

“Clearly, they will rebuild. Slowly, you can see structures rising on a daily basis. There are jobs for people able to work, but of course there is a chicken-egg problem. In the worst-hit communities, there are no jobs, and no places to live—or buy food—so both the infrastructure and the job structure must be rebuilt in parallel.”

Lending a helping hand

Even with the devastation he saw in D’Iberville, Miss., Phil Clauser was inspired by the hope and faith of the people he encountered.

For Phil Clauser, director of administration for the College of Arts and Sciences, the idea of volunteering to help victims of Hurricane Katrina wasn’t as much a choice as a compulsion.

Spending time at home after an early September car accident, Clauser joined millions of Americans who remained glued to their television sets, captivated by the horrifying images of devastation and despair in the wake of the worst natural disaster to strike the country.

“I felt helpless, and wanted to do something,” says Clauser, who joined Arpana Inman, assistant professor of counseling psychology, in utilizing the paid leave opportunity presented by Lehigh University to aid victims of Katrina.

Inman served as part of a team of mental health professionals who assisted in the “look and leave” program, an intervention that involved accompanying evacuated families as they returned to their prior residences in New Orleans’ 9th Ward and viewed the destruction for the first time.

Clauser’s group, organized through Bethlehem’s First Presbyterian Church to aid in disaster relief, headed to the small town of D’Iberville, Miss., which was directly across the bay from Biloxi and at the epicenter of a wide swath of destruction.

“We were asked what we wanted to do and we said, ‘Anything!’” Clauser recalls. “We ended up doing all sorts of things over the eight days we were there—distributing donations, working in the kitchens, cleaning or rebuilding efforts—whatever was needed.”

The variety of tasks afforded Clauser and his fellow volunteers the opportunity to bond with residents of the nearly destroyed town, who spent their days picking through the rubble of their homes and beginning the arduous process of rebuilding.

“As volunteers, we basically saw it as being part of one big family,” he says. “When something happens to one of us, you just hunker down and help in whatever way you can. Sometimes people just need to have someone to listen to them, to know that someone else is there, and that they want to help.”

The volunteers were also given the opportunity to understand the daily hardships the hurricane victims faced through their own spare living accommodations in a tent village built by the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance organization, and later, in makeshift sleeping quarters in a local recreational center.

“Life there took on a whole different concept,” Clauser says. “We slept on cots or sleeping bags or whatever was available. At night, the temperatures dipped to freezing. We waited in line to use the bathroom or the sink and just gained a much better understanding of how the people we were helping were being forced to live. For us, it was only temporary. For the residents, this could go on for months. We were blessed, by comparison.”

Standing witness

The devastation, as this photo from Gulfport, Miss. shows, went on as far as the eye could see.

As a member of the Katrina Assistance Team (KAT) that traveled to New Orleans just one month after the hurricane hit, Inman joined her colleagues in providing intensive crisis intervention and trauma counseling to clients at a mental health agency. She also conducted outreach to residents in trailer cities throughout Florida Parish, a hard-hit region located north of the city. That coordinated effort was part of a program initiated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in consultation with Westover Consultants, Inc.

“The most important thing for me was to stand witness to the stories of the people and their experiences,” Inman says. “It is only after you hear the stories of the people that you begin to get the feeling of what New Orleans is really like.”

Amid the feelings of hopelessness and anger that were so prevalent in the region, Inman says she was inspired by the sense of humor, the spiritual faith, and the resiliency of its residents.

“It’s incredibly difficult to articulate what it was like in New Orleans,” she says. “It is only when you experience the mile-after-mile of demolished homes, and you hear the stories of the people, that you begin to truly appreciate the gravity of the situation. It was a very enriching and meaningful experience.”

Clauser was equally moved by the resiliency, hope and unshakable faith exhibited by the people hardest hit by Katrina.

“We met the most incredible, inspiring people down there,” he says. “I can truthfully say that we saw no anger. We all talked about that – how resilient these people were, how quickly they bounced back and how much faith they had that things would work out.”

Clauser tells the story of one elderly man, who told the group he’d lost his home and all his possessions five times over the course of his life.

“He told us that every time, God would bless him with more and that he was looking forward to the future,” Clauser says. “What struck me is that I don’t know one person in my life that has faith like this. It was an incredibly inspiring and gratifying experience.”

Clauser was so moved that he has already committed to a second volunteer mission in mid-March, where he will be joined by his son, who will be on spring break from college and shares his father’s desire to help Katrina victims.

“The whole experience has taught all of us who went there that we are very fortunate, very blessed,” he says. “And when you feel that way, you’re in a much better position to give to others.”

--Bill Doherty, Linda Harbrecht, and Tom Yencho

Posted on Wednesday, January 25, 2006

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