Uprooted, Disconnected

Displaced by Katrina and scattered by relief efforts, New Orleans evacuees suffer a loss of community

On The Fringes

September 28, 2005|By DAVID KOHN AND BRADLEY OLSON | DAVID KOHN AND BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTERS

John Murray is a cook living with his girlfriend's family in Portland, Ore. Jovanna White is a mother of five living in a LaQuinta Inn in Huntsville, Texas. Elsa Pool is a psychoanalyst staying with friends in BATON Rouge, La.

A month ago they all lived in the New Orleans area. Now they are scattered across the country, uncertain whether they'll ever return.

Even as the immediate crisis begins to recede, people find themselves in a new stage characterized by a sense of loss.

"They've lost control of their lives, they've lost their houses and possessions. And they've lost their social network, which is enormously important," said Pomona College psychologist Ken Miller, a specialist in the mental health of refugees who has worked in South America and Asia.

Though many of Katrina's victims have rejected the term refugee, their experience can be compared to that of others around the world whose homes and communities have been destroyed by disaster or war.

Perhaps even more important than the physical loss is the absence of community, Miller said. Many of those displaced by the hurricane that drowned New Orleans last month are likely struggling with alienation and homesickness, and they lack resources to cope with their unhappiness.

"We are social beings," said Miller. "When you have problems you turn to partners, friends and loved ones. One of the things that Katrina has done is send people in all different directions so they don't have access to support networks."

The people most affected by displacement are those who live in areas that were devastated by the storms. John Murray, for example, lived in Chalmette, a city of 60,000 not far from New Orleans.

It was flooded up to the rooftops by Katrina, and then inundated again by Rita.

Murray, 40, has lived in Chalmette his whole life and thinks it could be years before it is cleaned up and habitable: The destruction "is a worst-case scenario."

On the Sunday before the storm, he and his girlfriend drove to Alexandria, La; after two weeks they continued to Portland, where her parents live. Now they are planning to live in Oregon permanently.

Asked what he misses most about Chalmette, he sighed. "Oh, my goodness!" he said. "Where do I begin?"

He said he craves the spicy food, his friends, his dart league, just a sense of knowing almost everyone in a town where he had spent his entire life.

Severe homesickness

"John is really homesick. He was born and raised there," said Jerald Tyson, Murray's best friend and a fellow Chalmatian, as residents are known.

Tyson, along with his wife and two daughters, left an hour after Murray; he ended up in Front Royal, Va. Tyson, who had worked as a security guard at an oil refinery in Chalmette, said he is holding up well.

But his wife misses sitting in the backyard of their Chalmette house, in the shade of their 200-year-old oak tree. His younger daughter, 9-year-old Angel, keeps asking about Garfield, their cat. They had to leave the pet behind when he jumped out of the car window just before they left.

Among the New Orleans residents who cannot go home at all is 23-year-old Jovanna White.

She and her five children, all under the age of 9, are now living in a La Quinta Inn in Huntsville, Texas. When Katrina struck, they went from their apartment in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans to the Superdome, and on to several shelters in Texas, ending up in Huntsville.

She yearns for home. "I wish I could just go to sleep and turn back the hands of time," she said. "I'm just homesick like crazy. I know there's nothing there right now, but I don't like it here."

Disaster psychologists say that in the aftermath, establishing a routine can help ward off depression and anxiety.

"Routine gives us a sense of predictability and control," said Western Washington University social psychologist David Sattler, who has studied disasters in South and Central America, as well as in the United States. "It is normal and expected to feel overwhelmed. The key is what to do with that feeling."

But for many, establishing a schedule can be hard in an alien environment. Some, like White's sister Wendy, are up to the task. After arriving in Huntsville, she walked a quarter-mile down the street from the hotel to a McDonald's. She told the manager she was from New Orleans and asked for a job. She started work Monday.

For many, if not most, Katrina evacuees, such day-to-day considerations are more important than any emotional issues.

"Counseling often isn't what survivors want," said Dr. Derek Summerfield, a psychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. He has worked with refugees on several continents and has written widely on recovering from disaster. "They want material, practical help in rebuilding their lives."

Another coping strategy is to stay in touch with at least remnants of the old community. "The more you can connect them to their past, the better they tend to do," said Dr. Paul Bolton, a researcher at Boston University who has worked with refugees in sub-Saharan Africa.

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