Mental Health Program Aids Katrina Survivors

In Almost three years after Hurricane Katrina, people are moving back to St. Bernard Parish, La. Some, however, are starting to relive the storm's horrors. One group that has helped them is starting a mental health program.

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St. Bernard Parish lies just east of New Orleans. Three years ago, it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Almost all of the houses were flooded, and the water remained for weeks.

People are slowly rebuilding their homes, and as NPR's J.J. Sutherland reports, long-repressed feelings are now coming out to the forefront.

J.J. SUTHERLAND: It's been almost three years since the storm, and still it's the scale of destruction that is hard to describe. Block after block, mile after mile, there are destroyed homes, some torn down to only a concrete pad, boards in the windows of many that remain, the occasional forlorn for-sale sign.

It's hard to imagine living here, sitting in the detritus of so much destruction, but for many it's a place they can't bear to leave.

Mr. WILLIAM ENSARTE(ph): And I'm in the process of capping all of the lines off and changing all the old galvanized piping in here. I'm taking that all out and putting in PVC.

SUTHERLAND: William Ensarte is showing off the little bit of work that still remains to be done on his house, a house that only weeks ago was gutted to the studs. During the storm, it had eight feet of water in it. He and his wife lost everything they owned.

Mr. ENSARTE: We've been so caught up on rebuilding, surviving, and living day to day to where we hadn't had a chance to go, whew, yes, I can finally breathe.

SUTHERLAND: But that sense of relief, perhaps, is what is allowing his mind to now bring up what happened to him, the vivid nightmares that wake him up.

Mr. ENSARTE: The dying of people, the animals that we've seen, the people that we've seen that was dead, my dad, you know, it's a lot of hurt.

SUTHERLAND: He wants help, he says, and for that he's turning to the St. Bernard Project, the same people who helped him rebuild his home.

Mr. ZACK ROSENBURG (St. Bernard Project): It's one thing to rebuild a house, and we're now good at that. But what we found out is so many of our clients are alive but not living.

SUTHERLAND: Zack Rosenburg is the co-founder of the St. Bernard Project. It's rebuilt more than 150 houses in St. Bernard Parish. As many of those people began to return home, it was a blessing but also a burden. Post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, sleep problems, alcohol abuse, they're all growing problems for the people of this community, so Rosenburg turned to the LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. Together, they've designed a program to address the mental health needs of people who are moving back into their homes, people like Lynette Briar(ph).

Ms. LYNETTE BRIAR: The storm was really horrible, and there's still a lot of things that people are dealing with, the loss of everything, it still hurts.

SUTHERLAND: Briar has been back in her house for just a few weeks. She's still painfully reminded, every day, of what was lost.

Ms. BRIAR: You go look for something you knew you had and it's not there, and you realize - I mean, you know, everybody does it. It's not just me.

SUTHERLAND: But more than the material things, it's the loss of an extraordinarily close community. In St. Bernard Parish, generations of families lived within blocks of each other. That's no longer the case.

Ms. BRIAR: There's nobody here anymore. All of our friends have moved; all of our family has scattered.

SUTHERLAND: Rosenburg hopes that his new program will help people like Lynette Briar to re-knit their community as much as it can be.

Mr. ROSENBURG: Their life isn't going to be the way it was before the storm. The texture and the quality of the life simply won't be the same. It will be good, and it will help them kind of embrace what will be the new reality.

SUTHERLAND: Rosenburg thinks for a minute, pauses, and says the people here in St. Bernard are strong. They have a deep sense of place, of community. He can't imagine, he says, how tough it would be to rebuild in a place where the ties aren't as strong. J.J. Sutherland, NPR News, New Orleans.

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