Katrina's Emotional Legacy Includes Pain, Grief And Resilience : Shots - Health News Ten years after the storm some residents have found healing — in the arts, family and new opportunities. Others suffer lingering grief and other difficulties they trace to Katrina.
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Katrina's Emotional Legacy Includes Pain, Grief And Resilience

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Katrina's Emotional Legacy Includes Pain, Grief And Resilience

Katrina's Emotional Legacy Includes Pain, Grief And Resilience

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This month, we're marking the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. When that storm hit, most people evacuated safely. But there was so much emotional trauma and loss - loved ones, homes, careers, the lives people had known. Ten years have healed those wounds only so much. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Ermence Parent is a self-assured, outgoing woman, a lawyer and mother of two grown daughters. But today, 10 years after the storm...

ERMENCE PARENT: I still have major grief issues - major. I still have depression issues - major.

NEIGHMOND: When Katrina came crashing into the city, Parent was frantic of the whereabouts of her 87-year-old mother. The nursing home where her mother lived said they had an evacuation plan. But communication was down.

PARENT: I found out on CNN that my mother's nursing home had not evacuated. There were several that did not. And one particular one, all the residents drowned. We didn't know which one.

NEIGHMOND: Parent called city, state and nursing home officials to find out if her mother was OK. There was no word. Days passed. Finally, she turned to the Red Cross, who found a survivor who fit her mother's description.

PARENT: They faxed me a photograph. And it wasn't my mother.

NEIGHMOND: Later that day, Parent found out her mother had survived. She'd been moved to the nursing home's second floor to escape the water.

PARENT: They had been there all that week with no water, no air-conditioning, no electricity, no food, no medicine - the whole week.

NEIGHMOND: Her mother was eventually airlifted to a nursing home in Tennessee. When Parent arrived at the home, she was shocked. Her mother wasn't speaking and didn't recognize her.

PARENT: She just wasn't there anymore, mentally or emotionally. I mean, she was just so frail.

NEIGHMOND: She never recovered and died within months. When Parent returned to her own home, which had been flooded with nearly 8 feet of water, it was destroyed. Parent's law office was also ruined. She and her husband struggled to get insurance claims paid and loans to rebuild. But they had no luck. For her husband, the stress was huge, says Parent. Not long after her mother died, her husband Israel, at 58 years old, died of a massive heart attack. And years later, Parent is still struggling.

PARENT: And the problem with mental health issues is they don't go away. You can try to bury them if you like. But they only get worse.

NEIGHMOND: In the aftermath of Katrina, rates of trauma and depression escalated. And a new NPR Kaiser Family Foundation poll finds that today, some people still have difficulty sleeping, controlling emotion. There are strains on marriage and problems with drugs and alcohol. Many who experience these problems say it's due to what they went through during Katrina. City health officials worry the 10th anniversary, with all its media attention, could provoke painful memories. A campaign of PSAs and hotlines is set up to help people find counseling. And psychologists, like Kim Vangeffen, are running workshops to help residents cope.

KIM VANGEFFEN: My friends and I have been talking about how much do we really want to pay attention to the anniversary? Do we want to watch the news shows? Do we not want to watch the new shows? Do we want to do something that's totally unrelated to the hurricane? Just this desire to perhaps avoid the whole thing, although I don't know that that's possible.

NEIGHMOND: Particularly when so many things can bring back feelings of panic and grief, images, sounds, even smells.

VANGEFFEN: There's a smell that we call the Katrina smell that was related to the mold and mildew that grew on things. And, you know, I still have things in my garage that I've never really fully gone through. And if I open those boxes, you can still smell that smell. And it just brings you right back to those times.

NEIGHMOND: But overall, today, according to federal statistics, mental health problems aren't greater in New Orleans than elsewhere in the country. And the NPR Kaiser poll offers some surprisingly positive findings. Seventy-four percent of adults surveyed say they're more resilient today as a result of Katrina.

URI: (Singing, unintelligible).

NEIGHMOND: In her house not far from downtown, 7-year-old Uri is thrilled to introduce her pets, a parakeet, a dog and a cat named Sugar-Pepper.

URI: He's mixed with the alley cat. And he has a little orange on his cheek 'cause he's mixed with the orange cat.

NEIGHMOND: Ten years ago, Uri's mom, Briceshanay Gresham, was a freshman at the University of New Orleans. With the city's history of hurricanes, she wasn't worried about Katrina until school officials forced students to evacuate. Gresham recalls walking with her roommate down the street as water started rushing, first at her ankles, then her knees, then her waist.

BRICESHANAY GRESHAM: I had the shirt on my back and the shoes and the pants on my body, you know. That's all I had.

NEIGHMOND: With help from her roommate's father, Gresham enrolled in a college in Washington state, which offered scholarships to students evacuated from New Orleans. She focused on the arts and wrote a one-woman play which she says helped her work through what had happened.

GRESHAM: The most beautiful moment, I guess, inside the play, was that every character had a pair of shoes. And so I would switch from character to character just by stepping into the different shoes.

NEIGHMOND: And when it came to the question of returning to New Orleans, each character had their say.

GRESHAM: I had lined all of the shoes up. And the audience really didn't know if each character was going to come back. And then I finally said, you know, I am all of these people because they are me. And these are my feelings. And I decided to come back to help my city, you know, to be the person that's going to help rebuild using the arts.

NEIGHMOND: Today, Gresham's an elementary school teacher and learning music therapy.

GRESHAM: I want to help kids to be able to do this same thing that Katrina helped me to do.

NEIGHMOND: Recent research suggests trauma can build strength. Psychologist Jean Rhodes at the University of Massachusetts was studying poor single mothers in New Orleans when Katrina hit. She has found the majority not only bounced back to where they were before the storm. They actually experienced emotional growth.

JEAN RHODES: And many of them had never expected to leave New Orleans or never expected to leave the relationships they were in. And they did. And because they lived through it and because they were able to be strong for themselves, their mothers and their children, they have a greater sense of their own strength.

NEIGHMOND: In fact, Rhodes says, the women who experienced the greatest amount of difficulty developed the greatest amount of strength. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

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