In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, victims had more than the life-and-death problems shared on television news. The emotional consequences can last for years, and those who want to help victims need to know that help must be long term.
I worked for the Red Cross at a relief center in Natchitoches, Louisiana during the week following Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of the Gulf Coast area. At first the shock was overwhelming to those who had lost homes and families in the flood. These people needed someone to listen, to understand, and to be patient because the weeping and outpouring of grief was considerable. People who have suffered great trauma grieve initially, then appear to have gained resolution, only to grieve again. Trauma survivors have a unique experience as a result of the physical and emotional tragedies. The first response is the surprise, the shock and the initial grief. But there is more to come.
Following the first few days after Hurricane Katrina, people began to sort through plans. Where would they go and what were their options? This stage brought confusion, doubt, and for some denial. There were many who simply wanted to return to their homes as soon as possible and get on with it, somehow not realizing the devastation that had occurred. The special loss of the great City of New Orleans could not be dismissed lightly, as for many people the flagship city of Louisiana held special significance.
Television images of people wandering and confused following the earthquake disaster in Haiti are similar to those images of people following Hurricane Katrina. This behavior resulted from the sudden shock of the disaster and then the denial of how tragic the circumstances might be.
For Hurricane Katrina survivors, recovery has taken years and continues, again both physically and emotionally. I have followed up with some of my clients during the years after I counseled them at the Red Cross and found a number of them talk of nightmares, of fear, and of worrying about the future. These same emotions are likely to be a part of the Haitian survivor thinking for many months, and years, following the recent earthquake.
It’s reasonable to want to help those who have suffered great losses, as has occurred with the Haitians. That help must come with patience and with the expectation that healing is a process that is different for every person. There will be those who will go on and rebuild, remain optimistic and positive. There will be others who will mourn a very long time, and the helpers must be willing to let that happen as long as it will.