Hurricane Duty Continues to Haunt Mississippi Police

Three members of the Biloxi, Miss., police department talk about how they are coping in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. NPR first talked to them right after the hurricane.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVEN INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The damage of hurricane Katrina may no longer dominate our television screens, but it's still on the minds of the people who lived it. This morning, we will return to Biloxi, Mississippi, where three members of the police force are finding ways to recover. Reporter Alix Spiegel first reported on them shortly after the storm.

ALIX SPIEGEL: Five months ago, in sterile the conference room on the second floor of the Biloxi police department, dispatcher Sherri Hocamp pulled a stiffed chair towards an enormous oval table, set down her coffee, and then calmly explained how Katrina had affected the dispatchers responsible for fielding 911 calls on the morning the water descended.

SHERRI HOCAMP: We hear voices, the voices of the people that we could not be there for.

SPIEGEL: There is one voice, in particular, that haunted Hocamp. A woman who had called just as light was breaking, desperate and crying, clearly in a panic, who told Hocamp that she was the sole adult in an attic with 13 children.

HOCAMP: And the water was coming up to about their head and they had no way out of the attic. And if I could have just pulled them through the phone, but there was nothing we could do.

SPIEGEL: In the months immediately following the storm, the voice of this woman, Hocamp explained, came to her often, three, sometimes four times a week. But in a interview two weeks ago, she reported that the visits, as she called them, had faded; now there were few and far between.

HOCAMP: It's gotten a lot better, and it has been probably a month since I've heard those voices.

SPIEGEL: It wasn't just that Hocamp rarely heard the voices anymore. There was something else about the episodes that had changed, something strange. During her most recent experience, the one that happened a month ago, Hocamp said that the tone of the woman's voice had clearly shifted.

HOCAMP: There was not as much urgency in her voice. She was just reciting the fact that she was up there with the children, and it was kind of like we're okay. Everything was okay.

SPIEGEL: The fact that the woman's tone had changed, Hocamp said, gives her comfort. The oral flashbacks are common among people suffering from post- traumatic stress disorder. It turned out that Hocamp didn't interpret these episodes as a byproduct of emotional trauma. The voices weren't flashbacks, she insisted, but visits from a troubled spirit.

HOCAMP: I guess, I look at it this way; I feel that if you sounded like they were okay, then eventually I won't hear from them at all. And they will be happy somewhere else. I think that's why I kept hearing the voices, because they just never found their place.

SPIEGEL: You mean the spirit?

HOCAMP: Yes. The last time I heard it, it was kind of like it's coming, the closure is coming, and they're okay with it--with the outcome.

HOWARD RUDOLPH: That's her way of putting this away.

SPIEGEL: This is Howard Rudolph, a post-traumatic stress disorder specialist, who has worked with members of the Biloxi police department since the early days after the storm. Rudolph says that over time he has seen a marked improvement in the members of the force he's monitored, and that unlike five months ago, few are now showing signs of serious problems.

In fact, Rudolph says, the level of improvement is better than he expected. And he's been impressed by the various ways that people have found to heal themselves.

RUDOLPH: Some people would just put it away and just, you know--others will find a spiritual place for it; whatever works for the individual, it doesn't matter.

MELISSA RICHMOND: Sometimes I'll just be riding down the road and then I'll start thinking about the phone calls.

SPIEGEL: This is Melissa Richmond, another Biloxi dispatcher who worked during the storm. Like Sherri Hocamp, in the weeks after Katrina, Richmond was haunted by memories of calls from people she had to turn away. For Richmond, the conversation that most disturbed her was with a 10-year-old girl, a child whose parents had called for help.

RICHMOND: Her dad had asked me to talk to her because they were in the attic and the water was almost to the ceiling in their house, and she was scared. And she got on the phone and was hysterical. She was so scared. And, you know, she wanted to know why we couldn't come get them. And I told her we had pulled our police officers off the road because it was unsafe for them to be out there; and her mom and dad were there and that they weren't going to let anything happen to her. They were going to stay there with her and they were going to make sure everything was okay.

SPIEGEL: Immediately after the crisis passed, Richmond decided to track the girl down. She felt compelled, she says, to find out whether or not the girl had survived. But finding the family's contact information turned out to be difficult.

RICHMOND: I searched and searched where we wrote down that information, and I looked and looked. I must have looked for three weeks.

SPIEGEL: Finally, Richmond says, she stumbled on the correct dispatch card.

RICHMOND: I was actually on police radio when I found the card, and I called. And when the mother answered the phone I told her who I was, and she started crying, and I started crying. And everybody in the room was crying, all the other dispatchers working were crying.

SPIEGEL: The young girl asked if she could meet Richmond. She wanted to see her in person.

RICHMOND: And she bought me some flowers and she bought me a card. And her mom brought her up to dispatch and...I'm sorry. It was a feeling of relief.

SPIEGEL: Richmond says that whenever troubling intrusive thoughts come to her mind about Katrina, she tries to conjure this meeting. She uses it, she says, as a kind of Talisman, to ward off emotional darkness.

RICHMOND: I find myself trying to think about that, and the fact that there are some people that made it. Rather than, I guess, trying to keep my mind off the fact that there are so many that didn't make it.

JOHN CAMPBELL: I'm a lot better. Do I get, um, emotional sometimes? Yeah.

SPIEGEL: John Campbell was one of the Biloxi officers who struggled the most in the wake of Katrina. For weeks, he simply could not control his crying. This emotional volatility was frightening for Campbell. He'd never experienced anything remotely like it. In fact, the idea that he was a man able to weather any experience with calm resolve seemed central to his identity.

In our interview two months after the storm, he expressed his concern that his usual poise now eluded him.

CAMPBELL: I'm kind of surprised that I'm acting like this. I'm still being emotional about it when I talk about. It's like it just happened.

SPIEGEL: The it Campbell is referring to is the near-loss of his wife.

While fleeing their home, she was sucked underwater and nearly drowned. Counseling has helped John to work through many of the most serious problems that he encountered after the storm, but the fact that his wife was almost taken from him, Campbell says, continues to rattle him.

CAMPBELL: It took me a long time to find her, you know? I was 47 when I met her. Forty-seven years without your soul mate. That's kind of hard. And then when you finally find her, you don't want to lose her. And that's--that's the part that bothers me the most.

SPIEGEL: In fact, Campbell says, he uses retelling this story of her near-loss as a kind of measure of his own psychological progress.

CAMPBELL: I gauge on how I'm doing on how emotional I get when I retell the story, because I've had to retell the story several times, and it gets easier and easier for me to tell the story. So that tells me that I'm healing.

SPIEGEL: His wife, however, does not seem to be doing so well.

Campbell says she has had a lot of bad days since the storm; Days overwhelmed by sadness.

CAMPBELL: She's a pretty feisty woman, and when she's having a bad day a lot of that isn't there. She gets very forgetful. She gets very short- tempered, and I found out I have a great deal of patience. Something I never thought I had.

SPIEGEL: See, Campbell does not believe that the irrepressible personality he fell in love with has disappeared forever.

CAMPBELL: And I'm patient. I know--I know that she'll be back to her old self. You know?

SPIEGEL: Hopefully one day soon, very soon, they'll all be back to their old selves.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News.

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