Helping Katrina Victims Get Mental Health Treatment

Deborah Gray Health Guide
  • In the wake of the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras, I started thinking about the emotional health of displaced New Orleanians. My husband’s company has been involved in the receivership of the New Orleans Housing Authority (HANO) for the last few years, and his partner Nadine is the current head of HANO, so I know a bit more about the city than your average visitor, and not just from a Bourbon Street point of view.

    I visited the city three years ago while my husband was doing work at the Authority, and fell in love with it. Every morning, before the city got too hot, I would take our son out in his stroller and walk around the French Quarter. I’d get a beignet and café au lait at Café du Monde and pick up a muffaletta at Progress Grocery for lunch (actually, it usually would serve for two or even three lunches). We’d sit in Jackson Square Park on a bench under the trees. I have a photo of Lawrence contentedly chewing a teething toy I bought in the French Quarter.

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    For those of us who are merely visitors as opposed to residents, there is something about New Orleans that pulls us back in, or at the very least, makes us speak of it wistfully. I’m not sure what exactly it is, but when Louis Armstrong sings, “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans,” we truly do, although I don’t know why. Is it the food? The music? The history? It’s hard to put your finger on it definitively.

    As you can imagine, I felt a great loss when it became clear that the flood waters surging through the city were washing away the soul of the city. Not just the physical damage, but the resulting deaths and evacuation. You see, the soul of New Orleans is, or was, the incredible community created by a network of connections between families and friends that winds through the city.

    Many of us have grown up with family living far apart, often separated by thousands of miles. We usually build up our networks from scratch wherever we happen to land. Many New Orleanians, however, have never known anything but close, constant contact with extended family, friends and neighbors. Residents can often trace their ancestry back several generations in the same neighborhood or even the same block. If two native New Orleanians who are strangers start talking about family, chances are pretty good that they are related somewhere down the line, or at the very least, know someone in each other’s neighborhood.

    When the Superdome was full of evacuees, Nadine found that she often was not able to give housing away to the public housing residents. Family and friends of residents could not be part of the new household unless they themselves qualified. The residents who qualified often refused to take the new housing if it meant leaving others behind. They preferred to be homeless and together rather than housed and apart.

    For most of us, a support system of family and friends is essential to our mental health and well-being. For New Orleanians, their wonderful city is more than just culture and history – it’s their support system. I hope that the evacuees have found or built new networks where they have landed. Without that, I fear that during the separation their souls will starve.

Published On: March 09, 2006