Taking Stock Two Years After Katrina

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Two years ago, Dr. Joe Freeman founded the group Free Life Medical Assistance for Louisiana, which provided free medical care to evacuees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. He also worked in two FEMA-operated morgues after the storms. We check in with him again to get his perspective.


I'm Farai Chideya. And this is NEWS & NOTES.

Two years ago, Dr. Joe Freeman founded the group Free Life Medical Assistance for Louisiana. They provided free medical care to evacuees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. He also worked in two FEMA-operated morgues after the storms, and we caught up with him just days after Katrina hit.

Dr. JOE FREEMAN (Founder, Free Life Medical Assistance): I'm angry. I cannot have the same color of skin of these people that you see on television that tell you that they have no water, they have no food. And I know in my heart and I don't care if people are upset about it, if this was the coast and with the complexion of these people were not black, this would not be happening.

CHIDEYA: I personally visited Dr. Freeman in his home last year on the first anniversary of the Katrina disaster and he said the storm may have come and gone, but it left the Gulf Coast in a lingering medical crisis.

Dr. FREEMAN: Post-traumatic stress syndrome. You lost your mother. You lost your son. I mean, you're self medicate, you know, it's going to be more uses of a drugs. I mean, there's just a lot of things that going on with this - that we haven't even scratch the surface on.

CHIDEYA: Now, an E.R. doctor in the Lake Charles area, Dr. Freeman's with us once again to talk about life in the Gulf Coast nearly two years after Katrina.

Dr. Freeman, it's great to talk to you again.

Dr. FREEMAN: Hi. How are you doing, Farai?

CHIDEYA: I am doing great. Now, you were angry and dissatisfied with the recovery effort a year ago, two years ago. How do you feel now and what's going on now?

Dr. FREEMAN: Well, Farai, I'm still angry. Recovery is slow. I mean, as you walk - well, I went to New Orleans. I got the courage and strength to go to New Orleans the day the Saints came back and the Superdome was rebuilt, and what a beautiful day. It was a glorious sunny day and people were smiling and talking and everybody was happy, and I was just walking and it was, like, great. And I was just so - I was walking all over and I walked myself around the French Quarters and, boom, there go the blue tarps.

CHIDEYA: So it's a stark contrast between the surface that's built up and then all the areas that aren't.

Dr. FREEMAN: Absolutely, a huge contrast. I understand that President Bush is coming tomorrow to New Orleans, and that's great. I'm, you know, I'm sure every politician will take - you know, will be there and do their soundbites. But I really wish he would have brought some water two years ago, you know. It's still - we're still in the midst of it. You know, it's like - I'm sorry.

CHIDEYA: No, no. I just - you know, you are someone who did so many different things to care for people, and you did talk to us about PTSD. You yourself have certainly been through enough trauma. Helping people can be such a burden. But how are people doing emotionally, the people who come in to you and the people you know?

Dr. FREEMAN: Well, I mean, I can tell you just from people that in the last two years, Farai. There's a nurse that I work with in Lake Charles. Obviously, you know, Rita was hit and his home was in New Orleans and then there came Rita, but he has rebuilt. But when he talks about New Orleans, you can see the sadness and he says that it'll never ever, ever be the same, okay?

Now - and then just last night when I worked, there was a gentleman who was a trans - an evacuee from New Orleans who now lives in Iowa, Louisiana in a FEMA trailer, who is on crack, 56 years old, you know, who just don't have anything. I mean, you know, we're - you know, we in this state - and I think we're all affected, are going through it, you know. And every time this rolls around, it's kind of reliving someone's death.

CHIDEYA: And what about violence? I mean, as an ER doctor, I'm sure you see your share. What is going on, do you think, with people who are both perpetrating and the victims of?

Dr. FREEMAN: Well, now, if you - well, just from my visits, since we've talked, to New Orleans, all the hotels in the French Quarters have armed security now, all of them. The violence - you've heard the stories in New Orleans, it's all over. The violence has increased. People don't have - as far as my profession is concerned, doctors have fled. Okay.

CHIDEYA: So there aren't even people around to reach out as many?

Dr. FREEMAN: No. I mean, you know, I've been working in the charity system in Louisiana for the past, I think, seven months in Lake Charles and the services are dwindling away. You know, when the charity system in New Orleans shut down, it was devastating and is devastating. It's unbelievable. You better not have a broke leg in the state of Louisiana. It is rough. You better not have mental illness, it's rough.

CHIDEYA: And I'm sure it's rough on you. We are going to have to let you go, but let's definitely stay in touch. And I wish you the best with everything you do.

Dr. FREEMAN: Thank you very, very, very much.

CHIDEYA: Dr. Joe Freeman is an ER doctor in the Lake Charles area of Louisiana. And he came to us from the L.A. Post(ph) studios in Baton Rouge.

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