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For Katrina survivors, Harvey could take an even bigger toll

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As one of the worst storms ever to hit the United States slowly moves away from Texas, many survivors are just beginning to grapple with the ramifications it leaves in its wake—especially those who have seen this all before.

As many as 250,000 people relocated to Houston after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Louisiana in 2005. According to the Washington Post, between 25,000 and 40,000 of them made Houston their home long-term, choosing to rebuild their lives in the fourth-largest city in the United States. For many, it offered a safer environment, better jobs, and stability—things that New Orleans, devastated by Katrina, could not. But when Hurricane Harvey (now a receding storm) made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane last Friday, the lives many Katrina survivors had established were once again thrown into chaos.

“I’m just trying to be strong for my family,” said Jude McFarland, who relocated to Houston after Katrina. After Harvey hit, he expressed his fears to the Post, saying, “I thought we were okay, and now we have to start all over again.”

McFarland isn’t alone—many Katrina survivors in Texas are now reliving the same sense of horror and trauma they endured more than a decade ago. Sarah Lowe, an assistant professor of psychology at Montclair State University, said that the mental health of those residents could now be at risk.

“[H]aving had the experience of Katrina could make Harvey even more difficult in that it could bring up painful memories of what they had endured, and contribute to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness,” Lowe told ThinkProgress. “Also, if they were suffering from mental health symptoms due to Katrina, these symptoms — such as post-traumatic stress, generalized anxiety, and depression — could have made it difficult for them to take action to escape further exposure.”

Numerous studies conducted in the years following Katrina note the mental health struggles that plague survivors to this day. According to one 2012 study tracing the hurricane’s ramifications five years on, the impact on the brain can linger for years.

“On average, people were not back to baseline mental health and they were showing pretty high levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms. There aren’t many studies that trace people for this long, but the very few that there are suggest faster recovery than what we’re finding here,” said former Princeton University Professor Christina Paxson, now president of Brown University and the study’s lead author. “I think the lesson for treatment of mental health conditions is don’t think it’s over after a year. It isn’t.”

That study’s sample consisted of predominately Black participants, a telling factor—minorities, especially people of color, already experience a disproportionate amount of trauma relative to other groups, something that puts the mental health of many communities at even greater risk. In Houston, the most diverse city in the United States, that trend is especially worrying—even more so for those re-experiencing events from which they’ve worked to move on, like Katrina.

“The disaster survivors who are likely to [suffer] have the greatest impacts are those who faced more exposure to the hurricane, who had fewer socioeconomic resources even before the disaster, and in some cases, who were suffering from preexisting mental health problems,” said Lowe.

Allen Francis, a former Duke University professor, told USA Today that “it is perfectly understandable for this [Harvey] to trigger past things” in those who have experienced the trauma of a natural disaster before. Those comments have been echoed by other mental health experts, many of whom have noted that Harvey could trigger PTSD in Katrina survivors, or those who have lived through similar situations.

But Lowe also noted that Texas residents who survived Katrina could even be better equipped to handle Harvey’s ramifications.

“For some residents, the prior experience could have been beneficial,” she said. “For example, they might have been better prepared for disaster, having an evacuation plan in place. They also might be more adept than others in navigating various systems during and after a disaster, such as getting support from FEMA, the Red Cross and charitable organizations, and dealing with insurance claims.”

For survivors of Harvey who find themselves experiencing trauma and PTSD, Lowe said that seeking out resources can be helpful.

“People could be mindful of common symptoms that occur after natural disasters and other traumatic events, and seek available help if they are suffering,” she said. “Of course, it can be difficult to receive services with other post-disaster concerns, such as securing housing and other essential resources. [But] having mental health services offered alongside other post-disaster relief efforts could potentially help people get the help that they need.”

For the time being, those impacted by Harvey are just trying to make do. Houston resident Destiny Wilson, who was 9 years old when she lived through Katrina, told the Post the she was doing all she could to remain calm and prioritize the things that matter. Still, the situation’s eerie familiarity hit home.

“The bayou is full to the top. Seeing all the water around the house, it’s crazy,” she said. “It’s like reliving Katrina all over again. We can’t even go nowhere. It’s just too much water.”

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