RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Experts say a manmade disaster can alter the way an entire community functions. And in our series "Disappearing Coasts," we've heard about the stresses the Hofer family of Alabama has been dealing with since the BP oil rig explosion. This morning, NPR's Debbie Elliott reports residents of the Gulf Coast are having the same kind of mental health problems people experienced in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez disaster.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: The Hofer family in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, is struggling to stay afloat, both financially and emotionally. Fourth-generation shrimper Aaron has been largely out of work since the BP oil spill. Lena Hofer is getting counseling to help her cope, and she's finally convinced her husband, an Iraq war veteran, to get help at the VA.
Ms. LENA HOFER: To be honest with you, I would say that my husband would hurt his self, because he's never not been able to provide for us. To see my husband cry over not being able to take care of us, it worries me.
Mr. AARON HOFER: If it wasn't for my children, I probably would have already committed suicide.
ELLIOTT: Aaron Hofer says he came close just a few weeks ago, after the couple separated.
Mr. HOFER: I found myself on the eighth story of a building. I looked down, and I just sat down. And I just thought about it. I've lost my wife. I've betrayed my children. I can't get help. I can't help them. And maybe they'll have a better life.
Mr. STEVE PICOU (Environmental Sociologist, University of South Alabama): It's almost like Exxon Valdez fast forward.
ELLIOTT: Steve Picou is an environmental sociologist at the University of South Alabama. He has spent the last 20 years tracking the mental health fallout around Prince William Sound.
Mr. PICOU: In Alaska, the communities up there were blindsided. They did not realize what was happening to them until the suicides started, and the divorces started, and the domestic violence became acute in the communities.
ELLIOTT: Now, he's seeing the same problems on the Gulf Coast, even sooner than they surfaced in Alaska. He says there were seven suicides starting about four years after the Exxon Valdez accident. But already, at least two suicides have been linked to distress over the BP oil spill.
In response, groups have stepped up counseling and outreach. Picou is training peer listeners people ready to identify oil spill-related stress, and help their neighbors cope.
Lena Hofer has been surprised by the disaster's impact.
Ms. HOFER: You would never think that, you know, something like that happening would affect your whole life like this. You know, you think we suffered Katrina, we made it through it. But that didn't take away our livelihood.
ELLIOTT: Experts say there's a big difference in what happens after a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, and the aftermath of a technological disaster such as the oil spill.
Therapist Pam Maumenee is on the oil spill crisis team at AltaPointe Health Systems in Bayou La Batre. She says natural disasters tend to build helping, therapeutic communities.
Ms. PAM MAUMENEE (Member of Oil Spill Crisis Team, AltaPointe Health Systems): Everybody comes out after a hurricane. You clean up. You bond together. A manmade disaster, like the oil spill, what you see are families against families, brothers against sisters, neighbors against neighbors. The community becomes quite corrosive.
ELLIOTT: Lena Hofer says she's seen that dynamic unfold in the tiny fishing village settled by her French ancestors more than 200 years ago.
There have been battles over who got lucrative contracts to work the BP cleanup and who didn't, and resentment over the claims process.
The Hofers received just $1,700 for their emergency six-month payment because much of Aaron's pay was in cash, and he doesnt have the proper documentation.
Ms. HOFER: Bayou La Batre has always been a community that strived through anything, and it's taken a toll on it - bad. People are stealing, lying, cheating, doing anything they can to make it. I don't want to end up like that. I really don't.
ELLIOTT: Sociologists warn if the Exxon experience in Alaska is the model, the worst could be yet to come.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
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