Police Coping with Stress During Katrina Efforts

Two mental health professionals have been working with the New Orleans police department throughout the Hurricane Katrina crisis. NPR's Alix Spiegel reports on the police officers' storm experiences, how they are dealing with the stress and how well the force is holding up.

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The emotional strain of Hurricane Katrina has affected everyone in New Orleans, but many first responders have been especially hard-hit. Police officers are facing long hours of work and extraordinary personal stress. This has raised concerns about the long-term mental welfare of the force. NPR's Alix Spiegel reports.

ALIX SPIEGEL reporting:

Emotions run close to the surface in the New Orleans Police Department these days, even for people like Captain Bernadette Kelly(ph), a 31-year veteran of the department. Captain Kelly does not seem like the kind of person who is easily fazed, but recently she's found herself crying, driving down the street listening to the radio, even when she recounts small decisions, like the one to have her husband stay in the city during the storm.

Captain BERNADETTE KELLY (New Orleans Police Department): We've been married 30 years, as long as I've been on the job, and I even told him that he didn't have to stay, that it wasn't his responsibility. I was the police officer. And he told me that he wasn't leaving, that we had been through everything in our whole married life and he was going to stay with me.

SPIEGEL: In the wake of Katrina, Captain Kelly and other police officers on the force found themselves in extraordinary situations, situations that they had never imagined possible, often powerless not only to help their city but, Kelly says, to save their own.

Capt. KELLY: One of our police officers who lived in the 7th District, Chris Abbott(ph), was on a radio fighting for his life. He was in his attic, and the water was coming up. And I remember Chief Riley telling him to hold on, and they were giving him instructions on how to breach the air vent in the attic. And for moments--you heard moments of silence, and we thought we'd lost him. And, I mean, to sit there on a bed and hear this and felt helpless that I couldn't help...

SPIEGEL: In the early days of the flood, it was this sense of impotence, Kelly and others say, that was so disturbing. But for much of the police department, personal tragedy was soon layered on top of that frustration. The vast majority of them, including Kelly, have lost their homes. Early this week Captain Kelly went to survey the damage, and she says seeing the wreckage was destabilizing.

Capt. KELLY: This was not my house. It looked like the inside of a filming of "Alien" or some horror picture. Just made me question why.

SPIEGEL: One of the police officers who seemed unable to answer the question why was Paul Accardo, one of two officers who committed suicide in the chaos after the storm. Captain Marlon Defillo was with Accardo throughout the crisis. He says that Accardo, like Kelly, was devastated by the loss of his home and the experience of being unable to help people. Together Defillo and Accardo would drive the streets, passing people who were sick and begging for food, unable to stop for fear their vehicle would be stolen.

Captain MARLON DEFILLO (New Orleans Police Department): I had to tell Paul, `Just stay focused. Don't stop.' And I remember him saying very vividly, `I can't believe I'm doing this,' because he had never--we had never experienced that before, not helping people.

SPIEGEL: Defillo was with Accardo on the morning he killed himself. He says he had no idea that Accardo was so desperate but sensed that he was tired and so told him to stay behind and rest a little.

Capt. DEFILLO: And I'm just looking back and say, `Well, maybe I should have taken him with me Saturday, and he wouldn't have done this, or maybe'--you know, the what-ifs. Or, `Maybe I should have done this; maybe I should have done that.' I heard rumors that he was thinking about quitting on Thursday or Wednesday and Thursday prior to. I wish he had told me--I wish he had quit. I think about that quite often.

SPIEGEL: What frightens Defillo, who is a manager in the department, is that he says that he feels that many of the officers, particularly the young ones, are struggling emotionally.

Capt. DEFILLO: A lot of them, the vast majority. I can see it in their eyes. I mean, I see them at the dinner table eating by themselves. I'll go sit with them and we'll talk, and I'll try to make some humor out of something. But you'll see them walk around, and maybe they're not processing what you're trying to tell them. But you can see it in their eyes. You can see--'cause I saw them before this, before this devastation. I saw people who were very jovial. I saw people who were very active and have now become distant.

SPIEGEL: At the moment there are relatively few mental health professionals on the scene. According to Dr. Jeff Rouse, one of the psychiatrists who's been working with officers, there are around 20 to 25 mental health professionals for all first responders: police, firefighters and EMS workers. The police department alone usually has 1,600 members. And Dr. Rouse says that while many of the police officers he's encountered seem resilient, he's concerned about the potential for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dr. JEFF ROUSE (Psychiatrist): The key things that are important for recovery from trauma are a lot of the psychosocial things, like good family support, continuity of socioeconomic status, your job, you know, all those other things in life that we have that sort of buffet us. We're trying to be aware of the fact that a lot of those protective factors against developing PTSD down the road, those may be interrupted by this storm, too.

SPIEGEL: Captain Defillo says that once the department is back on its feet, psychological assistance for police officers will be a major priority. Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Baton Rouge.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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