How An Illinois Gal Got Katrina Brain

I’ve often imagined many in have been wondering why I care so much and have been so passionate in my support of New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Region from afar, after having been to New Orleans but once, over 30 years ago. And how Hurricane Katrina and the federal flood have had such a tremendous, shattering impact on me though I witnessed them safe and dry far from the sea in central Illinois. And how not only could I be well-deservedly hard on BushCo, but even take Clinton and Obama to task for not paying enough attention to New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Region. And why I feel so strongly about this I started the NOLA/Gulf Blogathons. I’ll go into that in more detail below the fold–but first I’ll tell you how 9/11 impacted me.

I was, to make a long story short, traumatised. Here’s how I first heard about the attacks–it wasn’t in my car because I’d been listening to a tape instead. But when I arrived at work and turned on my radio I heard a chaotic jumble of info that wasn’t clear until there was a news story that put it all together. On top of that one of my co-workers had heard from someone else that the Sears Tower had also been hit–which was much too close for comfort–2 1/2 hours away. But fortunately that turned out to be a rumor.

After that, for at least the next few months, I was all shook up. I don’t have a crystal ball–so I felt as if anything could happen at any time, fearing that I’d be hearing of new terror in Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans…all around this country. Because around this time, although there were no new explosions, the anthrax attacks took place. And I did some things I’m embarrassed to admit now. Looking back on them, I know they were foolish, but they made perfect sense to me at the time the way the world situation appeared to be.

But several years went by and, while terrorist bombings took place in Spain, Britain and elsewhere overseas, no further attacks occured in this country. So I gradually became less apprehensive that anything like another 9/11 would happen here.

Now for Katrina and the federal flood. I’d begun following hurricanes on the Weather Channel in 2004 when four struck Florida. So naturally when Katrina formed, crossed Florida, and then entered the Gulf and strengthened to a Cat 5, and storm trackers forecasted that it was going to directly impact New Orleans, I started paying close attention. And was more than a little shook up, because of the doomsday predictions that she would be wiped out and uninhabitable for many years afterwards.

Because I may have been to New Orleans over 30 years ago, but since then, have traveled there many times in spirit. I love that beautiful city and the rest of Louisiana, and have always enjoyed reading about New Orleans and Louisiana and the distinctive culture there. And seeing movies filmed there.

Then on 8/29 Katrina made that jog to the left and instead made first landfall at Buras, Louisiana, then made a second landfall in Mississippi. I was as relieved as was everybody else on the outside, unaware of what had actually happened in New Orleans, to hear newspeople and even people in the French Quarter, away from the danger zone, who didn’t know what was really going on say New Orleans had “dodged the bullet.”

But soon I was to learn of the true scope of the disaster, as the Lower 9th, Gentilly, Lakeview and the rest of the lower-lying areas of New Orleans rapidly filled with water from Lake Pontchartrain due to the failure of levees that should have been maintained by the federal government.

And the spirit-shredding things I saw while glued to the set–people waiting on rooftops for rescue or wading through what was called a “toxic soup” to the overpasses that served as high ground, FEMA’s and other bureaucrats’ blocking aid and rescuers–all broke my heart and made me very sad and angry that our own government was treating people this way.

But even more distressing was how soon after the disaster other Americans would complain about hearing news out of New Orleans in such places as the MSNBC blog Rising from Ruin In response to which was posted, originally in the summer of 2006:

I don’t understand why so many are tired of hearing about New Orleans. I am aware that some are unhappy with the fact that Katrina’s damaging effects in Mississippi, Alabama, etc. were barely covered compared to those of the flooding in New Orleans. I’m not trivializing this, because Mississippi did catch hell from Katrina as she obliterated or nearly obliterated whole communities as she did so. But the storm blew right through. After she had gone, Mississippians were free to begin assessing the damage, cleaning up debris, and taking other halting steps towards putting their shattered lives back together. So, Mississippi got a head start on recovery.

However, for Louisiana, the day of Katrina’s landfall was only the beginning of at least a week of hell not for the faint of heart. Besides New Orleans’ massive flooding, Louisiana was tortured by huge fires which made New Orleans’ skyline resemble Baghdad’s and could not be put out in spite of ironically being surrounded by floodwaters.

Louisiana felt the anguish of those who’d been forced to gravitate to the Superdome and Convention Center–which quickly metastasized into hot, humid, dark, filthy, festering sores where rapes and other violence took place and from where hordes of hungry, thirsty, sick, suffering humanity cried out for help on national TV. And waited…and waited…and waited.

Louisiana fell apart in the sickening sort of collapse usually seen only overseas–where the streets of New Orleans became Baghdad’s. Louisiana was torn apart by leaders–Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin–who bickered and pointed fingers instead of working together to make order out of the chaos. In fairness, though, this catastrophe was off the charts, the likes of which had not been seen in America in many years. The levee breaches and rapid flooding had been a sort of “shock and awe.” Is it any wonder that they were at a loss regarding what to do–let alone not being able to get together on dealing with a rapidly deteriorating situation?

And Louisiana was also embroiled in a relationship from hell with a Bush Administration clueless as to how to handle her excruciating crisis. Not to mention FEMA–I read in Michael Eric Dyson’s Come Hell or High Water where, In Jefferson Parish, FEMA cut the telephone lines. Now, WHY would FEMA have done that? I mean, it doesn’t make sense because this was LOUISIANA–not some foreign land with which America was at war.

And it took almost a month before the floodwaters were pumped out of New Orleans, then Rita hit and caused some new flooding, so residents couldn’t even begin assessing the damage and cleaning up until the floodwaters were out of there.

Fast forward to a year after Katrina. It is shameful that with all the hardships New Orleanians, Mississippians, etc. are going through, the broadcast media is not reporting as much out of the storm zone as it should be… This near-total news blackout prevails in spite of the fact that Louisiana and Mississippi still desperately need help. Maybe having more attention paid to what people in those states must deal with could at least get FEMA to release the allocated money it has been sitting on, if not get more money appropriated.

Louisiana is especially in a world of hurt. New Orleans is a “tale of two cities”–small areas including her French Quarter which are in relatively good shape and large areas such as the Lower 9th and Lakeview which look worse than Baghdad. Her water, power, and sewerage systems are in war zone-like conditions. Her streets are full of potholes. Her fire department, schools, justice system, hospitals, etc. are not up to serving a city even of her diminished size. Her mental health system is having a breakdown.

And Louisiana’s “Road Home” program, which is supposed to help her flooded-out homeowners if insurance didn’t cover their losses, is bottled up in red tape. Also, Louisiana wasn’t able to get enough money to sufficiently help her homeowners. (I don’t feel like going into the sordid details of what happened to it at length right now–but originally Louisiana came up with the Baker Plan, (which the “Road Home” replaced) which would have been more helpful to her homeowners. In short, Louisiana got the shaft from the Bush Administration.)

I did what I could to help out by donating money, which since my income is low was a drop in the bucket in light of the desperate need, but was the best I was able to do. It depresses me, the way I’ve been sensitive to the suffering there, that I’m unable to do more, like going down there and helping out. This makes me feel helpless.

Here’s something very unfair that happened to me on the MSNBC political website First Read after I posted the following after the first Democrats’ debate on Apr. 26, 2007:

Where was the solidarity of the Democrats–with the exception of Obama, who mentioned New Orleans in a sentence–with the Katrina survivors? Why did nobody speak out regarding the importance not only to survivors but to the rest of America of making Louisiana, Mississippi, and the rest of the storm zone whole? I would not have been surprised by the “let them eat cake” Republicans’ being silent on this matter in support of their “Dear Leader’s” inaction. But for the Democrats–reputedly members of a “party for the people”–to thus remain silent is at the very least cowardly, at the worst, a betrayal of their own principles. Obeying the debate’s rules is not a valid excuse–it smacks of the Nuremberg defense, “I was only following orders.” The Democrats should have stood up and spoken out about the slowness of the recovery in Louisiana, Mississippi, and the rest of the storm zone, against Bush Administration neglect, and in support of Katrina and Rita survivors. There was a lot of “Wag the Dog” crap about abortion and the “right to life”–I have to ask, What about New Orleans’ right to life? What about the right of people now in Houston, Atlanta, and other cities, who now cannot afford to do so because of the housing shortage, to return? The Democrats should have stood up to Brian Williams and let him know what really matters.

A mean-spirited wingnut who was rich enough to be able to afford to send his or her step-daughter to New Orleans to help build houses, who signed himself/herself “Katrina Fatigue” practically yelled at me for the way I kept bringing Katrina and New Orleans up:

I am not so sure I would continue to hound Brian Williams as you have done and continue to do across every board you can access. At least he is giving you the opportunity to express yourself. Once he gets as tired of your NOLA tirades as most of the rest of us are, he might just pull the plug. By the way, as I have previously asked you, how much time have you spent on site in NOLA, post Katrina. I ask, because my step-daughter is there again for the next two weeks. Her church rotates members in for two week intervals. There must be something you could do to help there. If you took all the time you spend writing these angry, repetitive dissertations, you would have time to go help.

Katrina Fatigue

Here’s my reply:

Katrina Fatigue–God bless your step-daughter for going to the storm zone with her church and helping out. This is something I would dearly love to be able to do myself, but I’m too fragile physically and financially to do so. It breaks my heart that I am unable due to these circumstances to do this myself. So all I can do is offer my moral support and a sympathetic ear to Katrina survivors and cheer on those who are able to help or otherwise do right for Katrina survivors. And let those who don’t treat Katrina survivors right know my serious dissatisfaction. I hope you are having a good day after judging me.  

And “Katrina Fatigue” replied:

you judge us all the time. If you wish to fully exercise your right to free speech, including verbally attacking all who have a different opinion from you, then it is unfair for you to take the position of victim when we choose to exercise our own right to free speech.

Having to deal with this kind of insensitivity is one of several reasons I rarely if ever visit “First Read” anymore.

Now for “Katrina Brain.” The mental health problems including depression, anxiety and PTSD that developed in New Orleans and among evacuees elsewhere in Louisiana are well-known, and then there are cognitive issues arising from the stress of living in a disaster zone, colloquially called “Katrina Brain” which make life disjointed and surreal. New Orleans blogger Slate recounts struggles with Katrina Brain:

Out with friends last weekend, one of them said: “Do you have Katrina brain? I do. I’m forgetting things all the time, forgetting words, names, where I put things down.” I said that yes, that had been happening to me as well. We went on to talk about some of the other Katrina brain issues. I just tried to light my cigarette with my chapstick. Didn’t phase me, that kind of thing happens a lot around here. People are gaining weight, losing weight, and not on purpose. Most of us forgive the flakiness of others because we’re a little flaky ourselves. It’s Katrina Brain. It’s a disjointed kind of thing. They need to put xanax and prozac in the water system.

The other day I walked out of my house, fairly normal place: power’s on, phone works, AC will really crank up if necessary. I got somewhere on Gov Nicholls around Dauphine and the dog stopped to sniff something intently. My brain didn’t register that this something no doubt smelled intriguing to a dog. It was three refrigerators on the sidewalk with the telltale Katrina brown color on the outer walls of them. I hadn’t noticed them, they were part of the landscape for so long that they didn’t seem strange. But these were strange. It’s nine months later and there they were. Hadn’t seen one in a while but the brain didn’t process this as an anomaly. Probably had just been removed from an apartment or condo building. Maybe not enough work crews. At this point, they are actually something that should stand out since all the others were hauled away, but here they were with my dog straining at the leash to sniff them. ::::::JOLT:::::::

Time can be strange here. Katrina Brain seems to warp time a little. A lot of us still struggle with what day or date it is. The friend who coined the K Brain term was asking if we find ourselves drinking a little more. Most of us said that although we’re not drinking every day, we might have three instead of two when we do go out. Everyone at the table (6 of us) nodded in agreement and the pharmacy companies must love New Orleanians. So many of them are medicated these days, then of course there are the ones who aren’t.

Now for vicarious trauma. While I Googled this but couldn’t find any useful material specifically on vicarious trauma in individuals who watched Katrina and the federal flood unfold from far-off states, Rodney Luster, Ph.D defines it in general as

exposure to another’s traumatic event and the observer’s reactions as a result of that same event.

He adds:

A partial list of things to look for in yourself or others after exposure to a disturbing event, story, communication exchange, media, or news footage include the following: anxiety, hyper-vigilance, intrusive imagery or flashbacks, hyperactivity, night-terrors, rage reactions, mood swings, reduced ability to cope with daily stressors, social withdrawal, avoidance behaviors with certain situations, depression, despair, hopelessness, recurring anger, self-blame, guilt and shame, compulsive or aggressive behaviors, sleep disorders, concentration problems, disconnection from others, loss of interest in outside activities, and phantom physical pains.

I think I’ve been experiencing the vicarious trauma of seeing what happened not only to New Orleans and her people during and after 8/29 but also how BushCo has treated her in her effort to recover–and identified with her people, and consequently come down with “Katrina Brain.” I feel the mental/emotional pain of those struggling to come back and wish there were more I was able do for them.

Besides, even though I live a safe distance from any coast, I am aware that central Illinois is subject to tornadoes and we even had a 5.2 earthquake 3 or so weeks ago. The New Madrid fault system runs under our feet.

Now you may be wondering exactly how an Illinois gal like myself could show the symptoms of “Katrina brain.” Little cognitive glitches due to pre-occupation, for one. For example, when I wrote in an e-mail, “When you walk with a cain, people are awfully nice to you. As if I’d been thinking of the story of Cain and Abel. Or Sen. John McCain.

I think my “Katrina brain” comes out in my over-sensitivity–my short fuse. Which is why I find it so hard to deal with the way so many, even on this site, seem to have forgotten Katrina and New Orleans and the way the MSM and all candidates have been giving them short shrift. It’s not only as if they’ve written off a valuable part of this country but also as if they’re unaware that something similarly catastrophic could happen to their state or city next. And here’s something that particularly saddens me and makes me almost physically ill–the way people deride New Orleans and Louisiana and her people.

And sometimes “Katrina brain” has the paradoxical effect on me where I know I need to write about New Orleans and Katrina to call them to this community’s attention, but can’t come up with things to say. I just feel emotionally drained.

When there’s another disaster like the China earthquake, the Burma cyclone, or last fall’s California wildfires, I flash back. I’ll watch the news coverage and inevitably look for comparisons to Katrina, the flood, and how BushCo handled them. I’ll notice the fact that China’s govdernment responded more quickly to the quake than did BushCo to Katrina. Or the hypocrisy of how Bush has been protesting the fact that Burma hasn’t been letting in foreign relief workers–when BushCo itself didn’t let in relief supplies and rescuers from overseas as New Orleans drowned. It’s as if BushCo had cruelly wanted people in Louisiana to die.

Lastly, when hurricane season rolls around, as this year’s will about one and a half weeks from now, I become apprehensive even though I live so far from the sea. I’m just fearful of another Katrina and what it could do to a still-recovering New Orleans. And a Louisiana whose coastline has been washing away at the rate of a football field every half-hour. Hearing predictions that a storm could enter the Gulf raises my hackles (and, of course, I don’t want to see one hit anyplace else on the US mainland, either.)

This diary has been difficult to finish because the way I identify so much with people in New Orleans I’ve also been experiencing what one of my NOLA friends calls “yin and yang” as if I were living there (as well as regarding several other matters in my own life I eventually plan to write about.) But I’d like to close this diary, which so far has been something of a downer, on a positive, if not inspiring note.

It sounds strange to speak of gifts from Katrina, but oddly, I received a few. Interestingly, for at least a month or two before Katrina hit, I’d been getting these awful near-migraines almost every day. But then Katrina hit and New Orleans drowned, and the headaches vanished to almost nothing. I still only rarely get such headaches anymore. It’s as if Katrina, the flood, and the aftermath gave me something outside my head to focus on.

Then there are a couple of new interests sparked by the disaster. Such as the food. New Orleans-type food I can afford is hard to find around here, but soon after Katrina I first visited, and quickly developed an addiction to the food at, Popeye’s, which not only has good affordable food and a wonderful NOLA-type ambiance including New Orleans, zydeco, blues, and other Louisiana music, but is also walking distance from my home. I eat lunch there almost every Sunday, and sometimes have ordered their jambalaya to go.

Now for music. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that in my youth when I visited New Orleans, I hadn’t been interested in any of the distinctive kinds of music that can be found there or elsewhere in Louisiana. And I hadn’t even heard of Dr. John, Marcia Ball, Eric Lindell, BeauSoleil, Irma Thomas, Tab Benoit, Buckwheat Zydeco, Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas, John Delafose, Rosie Ledet, or any of the other artists whose Louisiana music I now have in my collection. But now I’m familiar with their music, which is now one of my favorite kinds. So Katrina and the flood have had for me, as one of my NOLA friends has out it, its yin and yang.