After storms, mental health crisis compounded by COVID looms in Louisiana

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After storms, mental health crisis compounded by COVID looms in Louisiana

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After storms, mental health crisis compounded by COVID looms in Louisiana

9/23/21 ... -louisiana

GALLIANO, LA – When Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana’s coast, Carisa Benson sought refuge in a friend’s spare room, crowding onto a single air mattress with her family of four.

Dealing with the aftermath of Ida is only the latest stressor for Benson, who has a high-risk pregnancy. She was bedridden with COVID during their evacuation, hospitalized for dehydration, and spent six weeks without prenatal care because of her illness and hurricane-related closures. Now, she is beginning to have contractions. The nearest working hospital is 30 miles away.

“It is the worst feeling that I could ever experience. It’s the lowest of low. Everything got disrupted. I am going through quite a lot of stress,” said Benson, as the generator abruptly stopped and the room went dark.

While she said she is grateful for the friend who offered her family a small room, it is a struggle. Their only power comes from a small generator – utilities have yet to be restored here – and the heat has been excessive. At nine months pregnant, Benson knows her time to find a space of her own is running out.

“There’s no way we can bring a baby here.” Benson told the PBS NewsHour. “The air mattress literally takes up the entire space from wall to wall. The reality is a baby will be here soon. It’s unsafe. We really don’t have much time to figure this out.”

When Ida hit, it wasn’t just infrastructure that took a hit. Experts say storm survivors’ physical and mental health will continue to be affected long after the clouds have parted, compounded by the region’s high rates of COVID and hospitalizations that have pushed hospitals past their limits.

“People are feeling a lot of fatigue. I think we are approaching a bit of a crisis if we don’t step out ahead of this,” said Dr. Denese Shervington, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Tulane University’s School of Medicine.

Ida hit on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, reopening painful memories for many residents. “All of that put people right back to Katrina. The stress is pretty heavy. It’s an old wound that has not healed and added new trauma to those unhealed parts of our psyche,” said Shervington, who is also the founder and CEO of the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies, which has extensively studied the psychological impacts of Katrina and provides community outreach to residents.

Health officials say post-traumatic stress disorder and depression are debilitating issues that emerge following a storm, especially for people who experience prolonged stressors related to being displaced from their home or trying to get repairs done on their home.

“Whether disaster survivors in southeast Louisiana develop a mental health disorder or not, many are being pushed to the edge of resilience fatigue, grasping to find the strength to get back up after being knocked down one too many times,” Shervington said.

A post-Katrina mental health survey from the Hurricane Katrina Community Advisory Group showed a doubling in mild-to-moderate mental illness from 9.7 percent before Katrina to almost 20 percent following the hurricane. In addition, psychiatric helpline calls increased by 61 percent, and the city’s homicide rate rose 37 percent in the months following the 2005 hurricane.

Charles Figley, director of Tulane University’s Traumatology Institute, said it usually takes about 10 years for a community to heal from a natural disaster. Recent statistics after Katrina are harder to come by, Figley and Shervington said, because even the research of mental health isn’t always treated as a priority.

The city of New Orleans acknowledged this in its own report on the state of mental health in the city in 2012, saying while some organizations have collected important data on mental health, it is not collected uniformly across the city’s many providers of behavioral health services. Beyond coordination issues and a lack of resources, a “vacuum in the available data to estimate the number of people in need of treatment and severely limits the ability to engage in community-wide behavioral health planning.” it wrote.

“Not knowing the extent of the problem helps no one,” Figley said. “There are many things we should worry about and this is one of them.”

In the years since that report, New Orleans Public Schools has launched an annual behavioral health survey that measures the mental health of students across the system, and the ability of schools to respond to traumatic events. That data is used to improve resources and connections to outside mental health services, according to the New Orleans Behavioral Health Council’s 2019-2020 report. The report also pointed to city efforts to improve the relationship between patients and health care systems by helping patients better understand the resources available to them, as well as efforts to more closely monitor individuals with behavioral health issues who came into contact with the criminal justice system and consider whether additional action should be taken to address those health needs.

After Ida, the city responded by “putting boots on the ground and going into communities we felt were the most vulnerable in order to attend to the most immediate needs,” a city spokesperson said.

While this crisis affects everyone, Shervington said, mental health issues will disproportionately impact communities of color, families with low wealth, and persons living in poverty who lack accessibility to mental health services. A 2012 Princeton study of low-income mothers in the New Orleans area, for instance, found that about 33 percent of its participants had Katrina-related PTSD four years later, and 30 percent reported psychological distress. Most still weren’t back to pre-hurricane levels seven years later.

And “these series of rolling shocks, worsened by the increasing ferocity of climate change which is bringing extreme weather events demand that our public mental health systems adapt and be prepared to deal with the mental health fallout,” Shervington said.

Aside from mental health services offered by the city, organizations like Shervington and Figley’s have tried to fill in the gaps. The Institute of Women and Ethnic studies has several programs focused on emotional wellness available to the community, particularly to youth. Through the Wellness Evaluation-Community Action Network (WE_CAN!), the institute has commissioned research to improve understanding of how mental health issues like PTSD present themselves in children, and educate local teachers and providers in the Metropolitan Human Services District with training on how to spot and treat the condition.

Experts say healing after Ida will be tougher since Covid has robbed people of the opportunity to gather in community. The region that eats, dances, or parades its problems away is missing some of the supports that are helpful to us to regain a sense of well-being.

In Galliano, Benson and her family don’t have many options. Finances are tight, having lost their jobs during COVID and incurring more unplanned expenses during the evacuation. She said it’s tough to keep a happy face for her 1-year old son while not having answers for her 4-year old daughter.

“We were going from hotel to hotel. We were sleeping in the car; then we were sleeping in our damaged house with the roof leaking and knowing it could cave in any second..She’s been asking, when are we going to go home? ” Benson said. pausing to hold back tears. “I eventually told her we don’t have a home anymore, but she wants to know where we are going to live. I don’t have an answer for her. I don’t know myself.”
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Re: After storms, mental health crisis compounded by COVID looms in Louisiana

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Louisiana’s parishes feel ‘forgotten’ in the dark weeks after Hurricane Ida ... ricane-ida
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Re: After storms, mental health crisis compounded by COVID looms in Louisiana

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'Purest form of hell’: Louisianans are living in tents and cars after losing homes to storms

9/17/21 ... ing-crisis

COCODRIE, La. – As Tropical Storm Nicholas crawled through Louisiana this week, dumping nearly 10 inches of rain, Hank Deogracis and Elizabeth Schrader were living outside in a small tent.

Left homeless by Hurricane Ida, the couple is part of an emerging housing crisis along the Louisiana Gulf Coast — one made worse by the latest storm to hit this region.

“We stayed here. There was nowhere else to go. It was raining hard all day. It was downpour after downpour, and it never stopped,” Deogracis told the PBS NewsHour, rain pelting his tiny tent.

On Aug. 29, their home and hundreds of others in their fishing village of Cocodrie were blown off their pilings. Local officials say Ida’s winds clocked in at 180-200 miles per hour along the coast where it made landfall nearby, demolishing homes and overturning shrimp boats in the bayous. A little more than two weeks later, nearly 100,000 are still without power. Some are homeless.

“It’s rough,” said Schrader as she let out a big sigh. “I don’t know how long I can do this. It’s pretty hard at times. I just wish I had a better place to go. A roof over my head where I can take a bath and clean up.”

Schrader, whose eyes were swollen and red from crying, swept the sidewalk leading to the home that no longer exists. Her husband walked the shoulder of their street, looking for any trace of their former life. So far, they’ve only found one item — a small ceramic church. The storms have passed, but the misery continues.

Hurricane Ida battered one of the poorest regions of the country. Sixty percent of homes in Louisiana’s Bayou region along the Gulf Coast, including hard-hit Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes, have been deemed unsafe according to parish officials. In some hard-hit areas, estimates suggest that 90 percent of the homes are uninhabitable, including nursing homes and apartment complexes.

Local officials say there simply is not enough affordable housing for all the people left homeless. Few homeowners or renters have insurance. Many live below the poverty level and live paycheck to paycheck in a region with long-standing racial and social inequality.

“It’s a crisis in the making. I don’t see any quick and easy solutions here. It’s a crisis that’s about to blow up,” state Rep. Beryl Amedée told the NewsHour after spending the last two weeks touring hard-hit areas of her district. “People are still returning from evacuating and assessing their property. We’re still adding to the number of people who didn’t realize their homes are uninhabitable, and they all need a place to stay.”

What’s worse, according to housing advocates, is that as the natural disasters have uprooted families and destroyed livelihoods, some landlords have used the storm as an opportunity to kick renters out.

“Many of our residents are the least able to relocate in good times, but especially in times after a storm when housing is at a premium. The question is, where will they go?” Amedée said. “If we counted all of the apartment complexes in the parish, it’s not enough space for the number of people who would need temporary housing. So we’re definitely going to have to spread out farther to areas, which are also strained for housing.”

Terrebonne Parish President Gordon Dove says he’s working with FEMA and the state on temporary and permanent housing. The parish is even considering bringing in floating marine units used in the oil fields to house people on the bayou. For now, Dove has identified at least 10 places to accommodate people on land and water. Terrebonne Parish is stretched thin with high needs and no inventory. So now, he says, it’s up to the state and FEMA.

“We’ve given them the locations. We are on a ‘wait-and-see’ [basis] with FEMA. Housing is the biggest hurdle in Terrebonne Parish. We asked FEMA to step it up. They are looking at housing 200 to 300 [people] to start with. As we move forward, we’ll see exactly how many we need,“ Dove said.

For now, it would only be enough to bring home people still scattered across the state in shelters, some of which are upward of 300 miles away. Housing advocates feel like the government is sometimes disconnected from what it is like for people who have no safety net.

On Friday, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary visits Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards to discuss a path forward. Local officials say it is getting worse by the day. “Our biggest problem now and what we’ve been fighting for the last couple of days with FEMA and the governor’s office is what the long-term sheltering will look like for these residents. We can bridge that gap for another week or so but being told that we’ll have to wait 30 to 60 days for these units to come in is unacceptable to us,” Lafourche Parish President Archie Chaisson said.

“It’s heartbreaking to see people without their homes. Most have lived in these homes for generations. And now it is destroyed or needs a lot of work. They don’t have the money to rebuild, and a lot don’t have insurance. I hope the federal government and FEMA really come through. The state and parish are doing all they can,“ Dove said.

It’s the same in nearby Lafourche Parish. Ida survivors worry the heavy rainfall for Nicholas could make matters worse. Many of the homes in both areas are uninhabitable, with holes punched through roofs and growing mold. Some of the many people made homeless are now living on porches or in trailers in their driveways.

Nichole Hoffele is living in a borrowed car in Galliano next to her apartment complex that was destroyed. The mother of two daughters cringed when she first heard Nicholas would bring more rain.

“I’m living horribly. I don’t have a home. It’s the purest form of hell I can think of,” Hoffele said, crying from the front seat of her friend’s Chevy Malibu as rain poured from the sky. “My roof is leaking, and it’s raining all over my apartment. The little bit that I do have is now being further destroyed. The mold is already growing, and the rain will bring more.”

Hoffele’s anxiety is compounded by the excessive heat, which she knows will take a toll on her because she has asthma and bronchitis. Louisiana’s state health department says extreme heat during extended power outages was the biggest killer following the storm itself. Hoffele, like many, has even considered living in her damaged apartment but realizes it’s dangerous.

“No matter how much I clean it, it stinks. The mildew and mold are growing. It’s horrible. We can’t sleep up there. It’s hot and miserable,” she said “Things are at a standstill. We really need to leave, and I just don’t want to stay here anymore. My heart can’t take it. I’ve lost everything.”

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., toured the area this week, and at the top of his to-do list when he returned to Washington, he said, was finding solutions to the growing housing problem.

“We need housing solutions. Temporary housing that ideally would transition very quickly to permanent. Wherever I’ve been…housing is a major issue,” said Cassidy, standing next to a pile of storm debris. “A lot of the housing was substandard, to begin with. It was not up to code, and that’s why it gets damaged. So now, people are without homes.”

FEMA has supported some local efforts. To date, the agency has handed out $329 million in grants to homeowners and renters for losses and needs not covered by insurance and paid 10,000 households to stay in hotels.

“We’re really concentrating on people whose homes are uninhabitable and people who are in shelters as a direct result of the storm to help people get a roof over their heads,” FEMA spokesperson John Mills said. “My understanding is various parishes are asking the state for FEMA to bring in housing. For FEMA, it is the last resort when no other housing is available.”

Deogracis worries about the future that he and other fishermen in his community face. “It’s horrible to think about. Imagine when I pulled up in that driveway, and all I saw was the pilings. There was no house. My neighbor’s house was gone. I was terrified,” Schrader said. They are now living on the land.

The couple, who has lived here for 20 years, built a makeshift shelter with scrap wood and blue tarps. Inside they are living off donated water and food. Their two dogs are crated and shivering in the corner. A clothesline hangs with hand-washed clothes. They wash in buckets of water. Neither of them knows what’s next.

“I’m washing my clothes by hand. I’m sleeping in a tent,” Schrader said. “We don’t have a bathroom. We got nothing.”
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