Biloxi Police Struggle with Hurricane Aftermath

First responders at the Biloxi police department are struggling with emotional distress of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath. They are experiencing flashbacks, waking up from nightmares and crying for no apparent reason. In the third installment of a four-part series on mental health after the storm, Alix Spiegel spoke with some of the officers who still struggle with the trauma of the storm.

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Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast more than two months ago. In Mississippi, officers in the Biloxi Police Department are feeling the effect of those traumatic days still. In our third report on mental health after the storm, NPR's Alix Spiegel reports many members of that police force are struggling with emotional issues.

ALIX SPIEGEL reporting:

The Biloxi Police Department allowed its officers to stay wherever they pleased the night Katrina hit, and patrolman John Campbell elected to sleep at his house with his wife. Campbell has been an officer for decades and is, to say the very least, usually a cool customer. So he was unfazed when his wife woke him to tell him that a tree had fallen on his house. He decided to go back to sleep. Then his wife woke him a little while later. This time, it was news that there was water pouring through the door.

Officer JOHN CAMPBELL (Biloxi Police Department): I said, `It's just rainwater. Don't worry about it,' you know? I don't show a lot of emotion normally, and I really don't get excited about things.

SPIEGEL: Campbell grudgingly consented to help carry household items to the second floor, and a short while later, his wife called him again.

Officer CAMPBELL: So I come back downstairs. I said, `What's the problem?' She says, `We have a fire.' I said, `What do you mean, we got a fire?' She says, `Fire, burn, in the garage.' So I said, `Great.' Now we can't go upstairs because right over the garage is the upstairs bedroom where we were going to take shelter. You can't take shelter underneath a fire.

SPIEGEL: Campbell radioed his emergency operations center to report he was leaving. Then he and his wife decided to go to their next-door neighbor's, but by this time, the water outside had risen about seven feet.

Officer CAMPBELL: So we're swimming over to my friend's when my wife went underwater. One of the oak trees that had fallen, she got caught up into that. And she--I don't know whether she got sucked under or--but she went underwater. And she was too far from me for me to help her right away.

SPIEGEL: Out of nowhere, Campbell said, his 70-year-old neighbor appeared and helped drag his wife to safety. The neighbor then tried to return to his own house, but in the process got caught in some debris and couldn't make it.

Officer CAMPBELL: So I jumped in and I broke up the debris and I pulled him to the house, and when I got upstairs, I lost my wedding ring and I showed it to my wife, that I didn't have it, and she just lost it.

SPIEGEL: It was small thing, but somehow in the turmoil of the storm, it represented something larger, their life together. Campbell tried to calm his wife down, then told her that because he had radioed to the station that he was in danger, his fellow officers would be trying to reach them, and he had to leave her to find them.

Officer CAMPBELL: I knew that they would risk their lives for me, and I couldn't let them do that. She said, `How long do I wait before I get worried?' And I said, `Give me an hour.'

SPIEGEL: Campbell swam, found the officers and returned two hours later to find his wife near distraction. Together, they sat out the rest of the storm in their neighbor's house until late afternoon, when a fellow officer came to tell John it was time to return to duty.

Officer CAMPBELL: He said, `Come on, John, it's time to go.' I said, `I'm not going.' I'm not--I wasn't going to leave my wife. I'm retired military. Any time they asked me to go, I went. But this time, after all that my wife had been through, I wasn't going to leave my wife without her saying, `It's OK.' And my wife said, `No, you go.'

SPIEGEL: Campbell did return to duty, weeks of constant work, and two months later, Campbell says it's still a daily struggle to control his emotions.

Officer CAMPBELL: I'm kind of surprised that I'm acting like this. I'm still feeling emotional about it. When I talk about it, it's like it just happened.

SPIEGEL: Campbell is in charge of the Biloxi bomb squad. He says he can walk up to a suspected explosive with no emotion, which is why his current situation is so unnerving.

Officer CAMPBELL: You know, I would expect, two months afterwards, to be able to talk about it just like a--you know, just like a policeman, professional, detached. But for some reason, it still gets to me.

SPIEGEL: And Campbell isn't the only one. Sherry Hokamp(ph) is in charge of all emergency dispatchers in the Biloxi department, the people who accept 911 calls.

Ms. SHERRY HOKAMP (Biloxi Police Dispatcher): Some of the calls, they were distressing.

SPIEGEL: Hokamp points to one call in particular.

Ms. HOKAMP: It was a woman. She was in the attic. There were five grown-ups on the bottom floor. The water was coming up to about their head, and she had 13 children in the attic with her. And she was the chosen adult to be with all the children. And they had no way out of the attic, and I know that that was an area that was completely destroyed. And if I could have just pulled them through the phone, but there was nothing we could do.

SPIEGEL: This, Hokamp says, is one of the calls that now haunts her.

Ms. HOKAMP: We hear voices, the voices of the people that we could not be there for. They come back. They come back to visit all different times.

SPIEGEL: She gives one small example from the day before.

Ms. HOKAMP: My husband and I went to Destin to get away for the weekend, and we were on our way to Destin, and I could hear her voice again, telling me that she was in the attic and she had 13 children in the attic with her.

SPIEGEL: Melissa Richmond(sp) is also a dispatcher who sometimes struggles. She says she tries not to think about the storm and all the people she talked to.

Ms. MELISSA RICHMOND (Biloxi Police Dispatcher): It's hard to think about people that are not here any longer because we feel like we didn't do a good enough job. You still feel like you failed sometimes.

SPIEGEL: Richmond, like Hokamp, finds that memories come unbidden, particularly at night.

Ms. RICHMOND: Like, I will wake up in the middle of the night, and it's like I'm hearing the phone calls over and over again of these people that we talked to and couldn't get to. And it will wake me up out of a dead sleep.

SPIEGEL: Mental health counselor Howard Rudolph spent a week and a half with the department. He counseled about 30 of 125 officers.

Mr. HOWARD RUDOLPH (Mental Health Counselor): Almost everybody I spoke with had some form of something that would be on the charts or on the scale for some form of diagnosis, if you wanted to give it one.

SPIEGEL: He cautions that most officers will not have long-term problems, but says that the rate of long-term disorder will depend in part on how quickly they are able to re-establish their normal lives.

And the disruption continues. As a consequence, some in the department have decided to quit the city entirely. Sherry Hokamp, the woman in charge if dispatchers, says she's already lost quite a few workers.

Ms. HOKAMP: From the start of the storm through the end of the storm, you're looking at probably 10.

SPIEGEL: That's 10 out of 25. But patrolman John Campbell says he will never leave, that the support he's gotten from the Biloxi department has been incredible and he's slowly putting his life back together. Today, on his ring finger is a thick wedding band, a replacement of the one he lost.

Officer CAMPBELL: This is a remake of the ring that I lost. It's actually called "The Abyss." I don't know if you've ever seen the movie, "The Abyss," where the character sticks his hand in the door and the ring saves his hand and keeps the door open. It's made out of titanium. Got to go to a special Web site and order it. But my wife, as soon as she had Internet capability, she re-ordered the ring and she put it on my finger in my neighbor's yard, the place I lost it.

SPIEGEL: For NPR News, this is Alix Spiegel in Washington.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, the role race plays in determining who seeks psychological help.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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