Hurricane Ida’s coming mental health toll: ‘We are experiencing a powerful emotional storm’

When Charles Figley, a professor and longtime psychology and traumatology researcher at Tulane University in New Orleans, typically calls colleagues he expects to chat about project updates and other topics. 

The day after Hurricane Ida, one of the strongest storms on record, made landfall, he couldn’t even be certain his coworkers were all alive. 

Thankfully, he was relieved that everyone he phoned was safe and sound. 

Balancing storm cleanup with persistent anxiety is a reality for many who live in the areas hardest hit by the storm. Ida made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The magnitude of these storms affects Figley and his co-workers differently than others. As New Orleans residents they will have to deal with their own personal recovery while also helping others suffering trauma.

Figley is widely known for his research on compassion fatigue, a condition similar to burnout that primarily affects first-responders and those who work in fields that experience high levels of loss. Since Hurricane Katrina, he said, we’ve learned so much but the pandemic has introduced a new set of variables that mental- and public-health researchers do not fully understand. 

“This is horrible,” he said. “It’s just horrible because it’s on top of everything else. We were doing okay until this disaster.”

But the mental health repercussions of Katrina resounded for years following the destruction. Because Ida was a bigger, stronger storm, researchers like Figley believe that Ida could have similar long-term effects on the mental health of survivors. 

“There were a lot of mistakes made [in 2005],” Figley said. “No one could get out of New Orleans. Communication has improved greatly, but that was 16 years ago. I don’t know how many of those lessons in [trauma response] will apply because we didn’t have COVID, and we didn’t have such a polarized nation. What we do have are 16 years of additional research to help.” 

Katrina displaced more than one million people, many of whom lost jobs and homes. This was “coupled with a mental health system that was likely inadequate before the storm,” which brought to light the struggles that many in New Orleans had to face mentally, physically and financially, according to a report from the American Psychological Foundation published one year after the storm. 

A post-Katrina mental health survey showed a doubling in mild-moderate mental illness from 9.7% before Katrina to almost 20% following the hurricane. Psychiatric helpline calls increased 61 percent and the city’s homicide rate rose 37 percent in the months following the 2005 hurricane. 

“Collective trauma can stem from man-made crisis or natural crisis, but what do you do when it’s both? When man-made resources fail and people are hit by natural crises like a hurricane,” Figley said. 

People tend to think that the storm will pass, people will clean up the damage and move on, Figley said, but it’s far deeper than that. A 2006 University of Michigan study found that within a year of a natural disaster, as many as 30-40% of adults directly affected by the event suffer from PTSD.

Those who experienced PTSD after Hurricane Katrina might relive some of those same symptoms in the days following Ida. Survivors might see pictures from New Orleans where they used to shop or eat, Figley said, and those trauma responses could start to come back.

“My guess is that they won’t have them as bad as they did back then,” he said. “They are remembering Katrina for what it was and looking back at another storm. They are checking in with themselves.” 

New Orleans’ levees, which were rebuilt and improved after Katrina, have so far stood up to Ida. However, other infrastructure failures, such as widespread power outages and flooded roadways will put a strain on the mental state of locals. 

“We are experiencing a powerful emotional storm,” he said. “It’s a wave of challenging fights and sadness. In the end, I know those who have been impacted by this will survive. They are a tough group. They have to also be willing and open to the support of those who have already been through this.” 

Are you or a loved one struggling with the impacts of Hurricane Ida? Here are a few mental health resources. 

Finding therapists, mental health resources that don’t break the bank

Pandemic got you numb? Therapists have a word for it: Compassion fatigue

More mental health resources in Lousiana: 

NAMI Louisiana: Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800) 273-TALK or (800) SUICIDE

Where to find their resources:

Louisiana Department of Health: Office of Behavioral Health–Mental Health Services

Louisiana Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health (LAFFCMH): (225) 293-3508

Mental Health Advocacy Center

Baton Rouge (225) 342-6678

Lafayette (337) 262-2030

Lake Charles (337) 491-2461

New Orleans (504) 896-2610

Northshore  (985) 626-6661

Pineville (318) 484-6348

Shreveport (318) 676-733

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