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What Trauma Looks Like For Louisiana Residents 15 Years After Hurricane Katrina

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

As parts of the Gulf Coast are starting to pick up the pieces left in the wake of Hurricane Laura, we look back at another catastrophic hurricane that made landfall 15 years ago - Katrina. The Category 5 storm killed more than a thousand people and caused major damage. Eighty percent of New Orleans was underwater after the federal levee protection system failed. While the city was able to rebuild, many of its residents still suffer from long-term post-traumatic stress. Denese Shervington is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Tulane University School of Medicine and has been studying trauma in New Orleans and joins us now.

Welcome.

DENESE SHERVINGTON: Thank you so much.

ELLIOTT: So when we think about post-traumatic stress, we tend to think in terms of red flags displayed by individuals - trouble sleeping, behavioral changes - as markers. What does trauma look like in a community? Are there red flags there?

SHERVINGTON: It really destroys the sense within those people who are impacted - the sense that together, we will be able to help each other to get over this initially. And it begins to show up in a sense of lack of meaning - what is life? Why did this happen to us? - and just a feeling of loss of belonging.

ELLIOTT: Now, you found that the trauma from Katrina has lingered far longer than trauma from other disasters, even from 9/11. Why do you think that is?

SHERVINGTON: A lot of the recovery from trauma is based on the psychosocial supports that the community is offered. In New Orleans, much of the health infrastructure was destroyed. And then in the immediacy of the storm, there was a significant disparity that resulted based on the inequity in how both the rescue and the recovery happened that has really created some of the challenges that we've seen.

ELLIOTT: Let's talk a little more specifically about the inequities in the recovery after Katrina in New Orleans.

SHERVINGTON: We know that New Orleans is a city that has been plagued with a long history of racial inequities, and that has created significant poverty that resulted in even the inability during the evacuation for some of the residents to leave. And so the poorer you were, the more difficult it was to recover.

ELLIOTT: You know, disasters are typically measured in terms of what happens physically. Is there a way to tally up the psychological cost to a community?

SHERVINGTON: So what we saw - began seeing in New Orleans was a rise in aggressive behaviors among young people. And unfortunately for some kids, that ended them up in the juvenile justice system. And one of the things that I have been very, very - a strong advocate for in New Orleans is that our children are sad. They're not bad. And what they need is psychological supports and not criminalization.

ELLIOTT: Let's talk a little bit now about what the country is going through today. New Orleans was an early hot spot for COVID and one of the first places that we saw the kind of racial disparities in terms of impact of the disease that we've now seen play out across the nation. You argue in a new white paper that lingering trauma from Katrina was at play in how COVID has impacted the city. Can you talk a little bit more about how that is?

SHERVINGTON: Before we got to COVID, whenever there were heavy rains in New Orleans, there was a reactivation of people's trauma. And when COVID started, I heard people say, I just don't want to get back to where I was. And so I think it reactivated some of the avoidance behaviors. You know, what happens with trauma is that your - actually, biologically, that part of your brain begins to selectively decide what you can tolerate and what you can't. But I think a lot of people just did not want to go back into a trauma condition.

ELLIOTT: You know, as you think about what's happening now in southwest Louisiana and in parts of Texas after Hurricane Laura, are there lessons from the response to Katrina in terms of preventing long-term trauma or at least, you know, diagnosing and dealing with it before the long-term harm sets in?

SHERVINGTON: I think that if we step out, what did not happen in New Orleans was a public mental health system that could say to people and reassure them and make them feel safe, just letting people know that they are having normal responses to an abnormal situation. Their anxiety is real, their mild depression depending on the amount of losses they've had. But they can cope. With time and with the support, they will be able to manage.

ELLIOTT: That's Denese Shervington, clinical professor of psychiatry at Tulane University School of Medicine. She's been studying trauma in New Orleans.

Thanks for being with us today.

SHERVINGTON: Thank you so very much. Thank you.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly call Hurricane Katrina a Category 5 storm when describing its destruction on land. Katrina reached Category 5 over open water but made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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