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Hurricane Katrina – A First Anniversary Remembrance

It’s hard to believe almost a year has passed since the coming of the great storm, Katrina.  As with the events of 9/11, this natural catastrophe made its mark in history in many ways and forever changed the lives of many of us. My experiences as a volunteer after Katrina taught me firsthand how our media can well emphasize all the most tragic elements of disaster, while virtually ignoring soul-growing lessons that can serve to enrich us all. 

Recently, I came across some correspondence with a colleague, written shortly after I had returned from my stint working as a Disaster Mental Health Counselor with the Red Cross in the aftermath of Katrina.  

Rereading what I had written all those months ago brought back many memories and some new perspectives, adding to some lessons that began in my life one year ago.  Having a bad feeling as an intensifying Katrina roared into the Gulf, I began to make arrangements to head south with the Red Cross at the earliest possibility.   

Here are some excerpts from that correspondence, written shortly after my return home to Lincoln County: 

I have been back from my Red Cross disaster mental health work in the Gulf for about a week now.  The experience left me so exhausted that I have been doing a lot of sleeping over the past week, thus I have not emailed anybody.   

I was stationed mostly in the Bay St. Louis/Waveland area of Mississippi – the area hardest hit by Katrina.  Attached to a Red Cross family relief shelter, I made contact to greater and lesser degrees with thousands of people over my two weeks down there. It was intense, because many people had lost all their material resources; some losing family members, neighbors and friends.  The devastation was everywhere, with many homes reduced to nothing but foundations.  If you saw Anderson Cooper’s CNN reports, you saw where I was working. 

Conditions were primitive – with no potable water, we had to brush our teeth with bottled water and go without showers for 3-4 days at a time.  We took “baby-wipe” baths, giving us that classic baby-smell all-over!  I slept on a shelter floor or on a cot; the heat was intense to the point of causing many cases of heat exhaustion, and good food was scarce.   

The experience was very rewarding, but I was ready to come back when the time came.  The resilience of the people down there was an inspiration to me – and while I was able to come back home, they remain to rebuild under those grueling conditions.  

After spending the past week kind of in a daze (also reported by some of my colleagues in our follow-up phone conversations), I am hoping to return to some kind of normalcy this week.  I left a lot of loose ends in my attempts to rebuild my counseling practice when I left.  This is just a quick follow-up, because I have not been able to get into the mood for writing. 

My colleague replied, asking if I had used any post-trauma therapeutic hypnosis in that setting, as we had recently completed some advanced training in clinical hypnotherapy.  My reply: 

In response to your question about using hypnotherapy with people in the Gulf, we worked out of a shelter area – out in the open – except for tarps and lines of thousands of people.  Much of the work involved working the lines and observing people – getting them aside as needed for brief counseling support, assessing their functioning and working on follow-up issues. Contacts ranged from a compassionate nod to pulling a couple of chairs aside in a semi-private area for an impromptu counseling session.  

Trance-work was included, though, in a strange sort of way.  There was so much destruction and devastation that victims were in their own level of paradoxical trance – to borrow from Erickson.  Thus, a glance of support or a brief supportive comment functioned as a powerful suggestion under the circumstances.  However, the trance came over us, the workers, as well.   

Beyond the blown-away road signs, the missing traffic lights and the barren sameness of consistent destruction at every intersection, we all had the same tendency to get lost repeatedly in trying to find our way out to the sites and back.  It didn’t seem to matter who was driving, we had to put all of our heads together just trying to navigate – and even that was often not enough.  We decided we were all living in some state of trance – some quality of self-protective numbing that allowed us to negotiate our days and the duties we faced, but left us bereft of our ordinary self-orienting faculties because everything around us was simply too overwhelming to fully perceive in a world-focused way of seeing.  

It seemed to be the opposite consciousness pole of the consensual trance state we enjoyed in our training last May, where we continued to move deeper into an empowered, invigorating and increasingly energized state.  Rather, even remembering to use our most developed skills of shielding and compassionate detachment, we were gradually drawn into the immensity of the situation as we offered up the last of our psychic reserves in service to a literal multitude of devastated people – finally coming to the end of our term of service in an exhausted state on every level.  But, yes, it was really worth it! 

And remembering it all a year later, it was worth it.  Mostly, I remember the courage and the resilience expressed by those who survived the catastrophe.  I remember how, when I asked folks how they got through the storm, so many replied emphasizing the positive.  I don’t know how many times I heard replies like, “Well, we lost the house, but at least we still have each other.”  I remember how people communed like family in lines of over a thousand, sharing their meager remaining resources like water and diabetic medicine when they had no assurance of when or whether it would be replaced.  I remember how grateful people were just to have a hot meal and some shelter over their heads. 

I remember the incredible levels of cooperation and instant community-building that occurred between all of the agencies and volunteer groups, FEMA (they did eventually show up), and the National Guard, as we worked together for our fellow Americans in need.  Unfortunately, the Press showed all too little of this. 

The Press also shows all too little of the continuing plight of our Gulf state neighbors, as they maintain their struggle toward returning to normalcy.  As we come to the first anniversary of Katrina, let us count our blessings for all the “simple” needs of life and remember in our thoughts and prayers those still struggling. 

My experiences with the people of Katrina profoundly renewed my faith in humanity. Nothing I could have accomplished when I was down there can compare to the gift I received of bearing witness to that.   

Granville Angell   © 8/2006 

Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC, invites you to submit questions for his column. (Your identity will be kept confidential.) You can email him at angell((AT)transitions-counseling.com, call his private practice, TRANSITIONS Personal & Family Counseling Services at 704-276-1164 and visit his web site: www.transitions-counseling.com

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