National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Reflections on Katrina
Teri Brister, NAMI regional leadership consultant, region 2, shares her thoughts on living through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
When asked to write a Mississippian’s perspective on living through the Katrina disaster, I willingly said, “Sure, no problem.” When the time came to actually put the experience into words, however, it was much more difficult than expected. The reason for the difficulty likely has a lot to do with denial.
Living in a state that borders the Gulf Coast means that hurricanes are a fact of life. They come, they leave various degrees of damage, and they are gone. Not so with Katrina. It just won’t go away.
There are homes, schools, hospitals, mental health centers, physicians' offices, and multiple businesses that are gone – not damaged, but gone. The two mental health centers that cover the coastal counties both sustained massive damage; staff lost homes, cars, and belongings. Some lost family members. Yet the majority of these providers, as well as other health care practitioners and law enforcement officials, were out providing services within the first few days of the storm. Services were provided in shelters, on the street, in parking lots, and in the shells of buildings.
Although I live two and a half hours (150 miles) from the coast and from New Orleans, there was still much wind damage in Jackson, Mississippi. Sustained winds of 90 mph, with gusts up to 100 mph, were recorded in Jackson. As a result, many homes were destroyed by falling trees and tornadoes; electricity was out in some areas for two weeks; landline telephone service was out for a week; and there was no fresh meat or vegetables for about two weeks. Four weeks later, there is still very little sugar or coffee to be found in grocery stores. Oh yes, and there was the gasoline situation. The average wait for gas was one and a half to two and a half hours. Few stations had electricity, and those that did quickly ran out of gas. Even when you found gas, there were limits on how much of it you could buy. People were trying to fill their cars to evacuate further north, and some people were trying to fill gas cans to run generators. When some unsavory individuals began selling gas out of cans for $10 a gallon, many stations stopped allowing gas cans to be filled. Those are the highlights – or lowlights as it were.
The region is now looking for a new "normal." People have relocated throughout the country, and most do not know if, or when, they will ever be able to return to their homes, or at least to the property where their homes once stood. Families are separated and jobs are gone, but the struggle to survive is alive and well. With all of the tragedy, though, much good has been seen. Individuals from all over the country have provided support of all varieties. One of the first calls I received the day after the storm was from a NAMI director in South Carolina, checking on my family. As the telephone service improved, calls starting coming from NAMIs in a variety of states, asking, “What can we do?” NAMI Louisiana and NAMI Mississippi have been working very closely with evacuees to make sure that those with mental illnesses and their families are not overlooked in the chaos. NAMI Texas cannot be left out – many of the evacuees have ended up in their state, and now they have had their own storm to contend with. Other NAMIs throughout the country are providing outreach and support for individuals who have relocated to their communities. After all, this is what we do; we are NAMI.
The NAMI Family-to-Family program teaches us that individuals living with mental illness and their families are heroes who continuously strive to stay on course through whatever adversity comes their way. I believe that those philosophies hold true as well for the individuals and families impacted by this disaster.