Living Katrina: 10 Years Later

The press helped us understand the extent of the devastation: the suffering and displacement of survivors, the problems confronting first responders, and the mishandling of the disaster on so many levels. For those of us from New Orleans working hard to address the mental health needs of evacuees as well as first responders, the news coverage had its positives and negatives.

Watching the news and devastation over and over was traumatizing to even the strongest among us, yet staying informed was crucial to our work. I would generally compliment the press, who were working under difficult conditions and traumatizing circumstances, for providing important information as well as poignant stories of human pain and suffering. I was particularly impressed with members of our local news teams, whose homes, in many cases, were devastated and whose families were also forced to evacuate; yet they continued to cover the news. From our leadership posts within Louisiana Spirit, the State’s crisis and response efforts, we had to be ready to respond even when physically and emotionally drained. We had to constantly remind ourselves to be thoughtful – to make sure that what we said was helpful rather than alarming. 

In the immediate aftermath, reporters frequently asked to interview victims, including children and families, when they might have been best left alone. We understood that talking to victims and survivors makes for a richer, more complete story, but it can also be traumatizing and push the bounds of what we consider appropriate from a mental health perspective. Most reporters were willing to try to strike a balance, and delivered strong stories while protecting their subjects.

In the aftermath of any traumatic event, it is crucial for journalists to take care of themselves. The possibility of overload – especially when covering the human side of trauma – can contribute to secondary traumatic stress, vicarious traumatization and compassion fatigue. Photographers are particular at risk, as they often work independently or with little support from colleagues or institutions. 

Not only are photographers likely to become overloaded, but their work may also awaken personal reminders and family concerns. I remember vividly the strong reaction of a dedicated photographer who lost his home during Katrina. He was having difficulty with his insurance company, and, finally, lost it one day while taking pictures of the devastation. Seeing and hearing traumatic material over and over can be difficult no matter how much experience you have. Taking breaks and having what we call “reflective support” from friends and colleagues are integral to self-care. 

During Katrina, one of the most important lessons we learned is that most people love the place where they live and want to return. They exhibit strength and, over time, most demonstrate resilience and even inner growth. Children will also show resilience in the aftermath of disaster, especially with support from adults. However, the needs of children are not consistently addressed. It is important to build capacity and provide supportive services in settings that are accessible to children and families, like schools, churches and community centers. 

We have also learned that after a disaster a “new normal” will emerge. Everyday life and routines will return; however, they will be decidedly different. A large component of recovery centers on a willingness and learned ability to rebound, accept and adjust to this “new normal.”