According to the National Institute for Mental Health, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) ” is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.”

This fall/winter I was diagnosed with vicarious or secondary PTSD. In this post I want to share a little about my experiences, as well as the broader implications of PTSD in a community following large-scale disasters.

PTSD is something that is quite common after a natural disaster but usually resolves (for the most part) within a few weeks or months. Primarily, that occurs because after the crisis, life returns to some semblance of normalcy. With Hurricane Katrina, the Earthquake in Haiti and now with the BP Oil Spill, normal no longer exists for many people.

Today is the six month anniversary of the earthquake, we’re a week away from the three-month anniversary of the oil spill, and just a little more than 6 weeks away from the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

I live in St. Bernard Parish (SBP), just a few blocks from where it meets the city of New Orleans at the Lower Ninth Ward. SBP or “da Parish” (as it is known, although all the areas around here are called parishes) and the Lower Ninth were two of the hardest hit areas.

In 2007, two years post-Katrina, Jerry St. Pierre (then President of the Central Association of Obstetricians Gynecologists)  said “Katrina has assaulted all the senses, and it is not over yet. This was not an acute injury, it is long-term. It is not a post traumatic stress disorder because we are still living it daily. One has the feeling that New Orleans is on life support and is struggling to survive.” These words really resonate for me. La Pierre stated them three years ago, August 29th will be the 5th anniversary of Katrina and yet, the city continues to suffer Katrina-related PTSD. Now with the oil spill, it can only get worse.

I recently wrote a chapter for an upcoming textbook and said “The mere experience of living amongst abandoned houses, or seeing the remaining signs of the disaster – destroyed properties, lack of trees, search marks on buildings – creates a constant reminder of the tragedy and loss.”  If this is true for me, a resident only for a few months, it must be remarkably so for those who have been here since before the storm.

An empty lot, Lower Ninth Ward

This picture is a typical sight in this area. Empty lots, with just steps or broken concrete in front, are everywhere, especially in Orleans Parish. In St. Bernard blight removal funding has allowed the parish government to start removing the concrete slabs and steps, leaving grass. Quickly the dirt becomes covered with grass and plants. The memory of what was quickly disappears.

While I hadn’t directly experienced Hurricane Katrina I had fallen in love with New Orleans on my first visit. In the fall 2009, as I began my PhD work, I spent all my school time studying issues of post-Katrina recovery. Primarily I was studying the emotional, cultural, social and psychological impacts of Katrina on the residents. It wasn’t unusual for me to spend 40, 50, 60 hours a week immersed in readings about this. When I had extra time, I was studying disaster impacts more generally. And when it came time for more casual reading I was reading books (fiction or non) about New Orleans. It was basically all I did. 100 hours on Katrina, disasters and recovery. Every week, for months.

I began realizing that I was experiencing trauma. I was more emotional, disconnected, stressed. But it was pretty manageable. I joked about it. I have spent more than a dozen years working with homeless people, sex workers, psych survivors etc. I am familiar with vicarious trauma and figured I could manage it on my own.

Until the earthquake in Haiti hit. All my symptoms came to the fore. I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t sleep. My anxiety was high. My appetite was off. I couldn’t focus on school work. I cried all the time. I watched the news because if I didn’t I got upset but when I did watch it I cried more. All typical PTSD symptoms.

I tried to manage it and couldn’t so I sought help with a therapist. We discussed coping strategies and I began to feel better. In talking to him I realized that my symptoms were less obvious, less intense, when I was actually in New Orleans. Each time I visited my stress decreased; when I was in Canada it increased.  As I talked to my therapist I realized that when I was there I was able to see the recovery taking place. When I was not there and just reading about it the research tended to be focussed on the negative and less on the progress and recovery so that was less visible.

I had hoped that my move to the area would help make things better. I’d be able to see  the changes and improvements. I would absorb the spirit of the people. I left for New Orleans on April 25th. On April 20th the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill had happened but at first the impact wasn’t reported as being as significant as we now know it is. Today, day 84 of the spill and BP finally believes it is contained. Testing will further determine this tomorrow.

But it is too little too late. The lower parishes, including the lower part of my own parish, have been severely impacted by  the oil. Coastal communities from Texas to Florida have had oil wash ashore. Last week it came into New Orleans itself in Lake Ponchartrain.  The oil spill is going to have more of an impact than Katrina had and will be made even worse if any serious hurricanes hit the Gulf this summer.

The effect of the oil spill isn’t just this fishing and shrimping season. It isn’t just this season of lost employment. It is a complete change in people’s way of life. This is going to change how people live. In fact today I saw a video (included below) where a reporter predicts a mandatory evacuation will occur within a week. I don’t know if I believe it will be that soon but I do believe there are communities – like Venice, and Grand Isle, where an evacuation is quite likely.

There is work being done to help people with the impact of the oil spill. I have volunteered a few times with Catholic Charities at food pantry/financial assistance programs. My lovely pal Joycelyn (Happy Birthday today darl btw) Heintz was featured in an article in the New York Times yesterday looking at mental aspects of the oil spill. She works as the coordinator at the Center for Wellness and Mental Health with the St. Bernard Project, the organization my students primarily worked with  this summer. Joycelyn was also the 100th home finished by the project – they have now finished 280 and have 50 under construction.  The St.Bernard Project has been a leader in rebuilding and providing mental health support to the local community, now they’re working on employment opportunities for vets and unemployed residents, as well as providing support to fishing families affected by the oil spill.

I’ve realized in the past few weeks that my PTSD isn’t as in control as it was in April before I left. But I hope that being here allows me to manage it better than I might have been able to do in Canada. Being able to volunteer will hopefully help me feel like I am contributing towards change. We’ll see. I do know I’ll feel a lot better if the cap holds up to testing tomorrow.