YANSS 057 – The lingering psychological impact of Hurricane Katrina

A few days after Hurricane Katrina erased the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I traveled down there in a truck with my uncle and aunt-in-law to help them salvage what they could from their home.

They lived close to the beach, just off the highway that runs parallel to the ocean through Gulfport, Biloxi, Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis, and Waveland. Katrina ravaged them all, tossing boats into neighborhoods, trees into houses, and houses into the streets. At the minimum, if you lived there, your home took in a few feet of the Gulf of Mexico leaving behind a crusty imprint on the lower half of your walls and deposits of goop on your toilets and in your bathtub. Looking at the imprint, you could rewind the events in your head based on the height of the water line. Beneath that line, everything was ruined, all piled up in the kitchen or the living room or in a hallway closet through some strange quirk of physics.

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At the time, we lived an hour north. The eye passed over us, and the whole region around was smashed and crushed and ripped apart, mostly by trees. Every third house was skewered by a big pine, sometimes several, and most roads were blocked. It took several days filled with the sounds of chainsaws and generators before we could check on each other. The power was out, cellphones were crap, and the news was spotty and rumor-filled. We didn’t learn about New Orleans until about four days after Katrina. We used a generator to watch NBC Nightly News and saw images of people on rooftops, begging passing helicopters for mercy. I remember feeling ashamed and guilty, thinking about all the complaining we had done in those four days not knowing what was happening in our beloved New Orleans about an hour-and-a-half away.

Soon after we arrived at my in-laws’ home, we realized they wouldn’t be filling the truck with furniture. Everything they owned was saturated with muck. The sewage and the debris and the ocean and the chemicals of the modern world had created a slimy stew, and that stew had washed over everything. It squeezed out of the carpet as you walked around, and with the humidity and lack of a breeze, the aroma was oppressive. In the end, they just took a few ruined photo albums and a soggy high-school annual.

When I realized I wouldn’t be moving anything heavy, I walked across the street to take pictures of a casino that had been flung from far away into the motel next door. Both buildings’ interiors were exposed at the point where they had been married by the violence. To my left, beds and televisions and framed prints of flowers and landscapes, to my right, dormant neon advertisements for jackpots and signs for big winnings in Mardi-Gras colors above slot machines spilling out into a parking lot covered in insulation and bits of wall. Overhead, military helicopters. On the highway, humvees. In the streets, people walked around with vinyl records, framed photographs, and other spared bits of life before.

A NYC firefighter shows us his tattoo. He arrived with another firefighter in a Red Cross truck as we salvaged things from my in-laws home along the Mississippi Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina.

Right before we left, a Red Cross truck pulled up and out of it emerged two bald, burly NYC firefighters asking if we needed anything. We said we were ok, but they hung around to talk. They had driven all the way from New York. It still makes me weepy to think about it. I won’t bother you with the details. It mostly was small talk, but the best kind. Before they left, they posed for photos and gave us a pallet of bottled water. Soon after, we drove home.

It’s hard to believe that was 10 years ago. I have a hundred stories about Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath. Though we lost no loved ones, and our woes were tiny compared to the people of New Orleans, Waveland, and so many other places, everyone I know who lived through the storm feels that sickening drop in the stomach when the words “hurricane season” start to appear on Twitter and Facebook and the local news. I track every hurricane the second it appears, sending screenshots of the spaghetti plots to my wife. I call my parents to let them know they need to keep an eye on things once I see it edging close to the Gulf. I’ll probably do that for the rest of my life and theirs. I can only imagine what it must be like for the people who lost it all, or who waited for rescue, or who suffered for days in the Superdome or somewhere along the Gulf.

faculty-bobby-270x200In this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast we explore the lingering effects of PTSD, especially on the people who lived through Katrina. You will hear an interview with Robert D. Laird, a psychologist at the University of New Orleans, who explains that the less control and the fewer options one has while facing a life-threatening situation, the more likely that person will develop PTSD symptoms. But, there is help. Modern therapy can successfully deal with this issue, and you will learn how in the show. In this episode we will also explore what causes PTSD, why it happens, what triggers the symptoms, and how to combat the effects.

After the interview, I discuss a news story about how search engines can alter the outcomes of major elections.

In every episode, after I read a bit of self delusion news, I taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of my new book, “You Are Now Less Dumb,” and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode’s winner is Brian Brushwood who submitted a recipe for Lemon Angels. Send your own recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.

A casino inside a motel along Hwy 90 on the Mississippi Gulf Coast following Katrina
A casino smashed into a motel along Hwy 90 on the Mississippi Gulf Coast following Katrina
A NYC firefighter hands out out supplies on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the days following Hurricane Katrina.
A NYC firefighter hands out out supplies on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the days following Hurricane Katrina.
The only thing left standing in my in-law's home was this ironing board.
The only thing left standing in my in-law’s home was this ironing board.
My inlaws' kitchen after Katrina.
My inlaws’ kitchen after Katrina.
The bottom floor of an office building along Hwy 90 on the Mississippi Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina.
The bottom floor of an office building along Hwy 90 on the Mississippi Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina.

Links and Sources

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Previous Episodes

Boing Boing Podcasts

Cookie Recipes

Mayor Nagin calls into WWL

The Hurricane Katrina anniversary can bring on depression, PTSD

What Hurricane Katrina has taught us about ‘post-traumatic growth’

Robert D. Laird at UNO

Internet search engines may be influencing elections