Feature

The day before Hurricane Katrina hit, former Louisiana Psychological Association president Kim Van Geffen, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist, was packed and ready to leave her home in New Orleans's Lakeview neighborhood for a Labor Day weekend vacation in Gulf Shores, Ala.

But when Katrina's projected path turned toward New Orleans and Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation, she quickly had to repack and secure her house.

Van Geffen moved irreplaceable items-such as photos of her grandparents and great-grandparents and her mother's wedding dress-to higher areas of her one-story house before evacuating with her father five hours west of the storm's projected path.

She didn't think to take anything from her office-also in Lakeview-since the office is on the building's third floor.

"I left my house thinking that I would have six inches or a foot of water in my house...I didn't think [the worst case scenario] would truly happen," she says.

However, the breach of the 17th Street Canal on Aug. 29 left Lakeview under nearly 11 feet of water. The water reached her house's roof. The water damage ruined nearly everything in the house and left Van Geffen unable to re-enter her house because the house's wooden doors swelled shut.

The storm also left nearly eight inches of stagnant water trapped in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie where her father lives, making his home uninhabitable. Van Geffen and her father were forced to relocate to a federally subsidized apartment in Berwick, La.-nearly 80 miles southwest of New Orleans.

Although the storm destroyed much of her office building's first floor, her office, on the building's third floor, escaped unscathed and none of the windows were broken.

Three weeks after the storm Van Geffen was allowed to re-enter the city and check the damage to her office. After trudging through the mud and broken glass that covered the building's first floor, she and her brother retrieved her computer equipment and the documents that she needed to file her hurricane insurance claims.

After recovering the equipment from her office, she drove by her house which she said "looked like something after a nuclear bomb." Although she wasn't able to enter her house, she saw that her living room ceiling had caved in and that nearly everything in it appeared ruined.

The hardest part, she says, is losing personal mementos, like the wedding dress and photos that she aimed to save.

After the hurricane, Van Geffen had spent count-less hours at Berwick's public library, where she found resources like a link to www.displacedpsychologists.org, a Web site set up to help psychologists affected by the hurricane (see page 28). On the site, she found offers of office space from across the country. However, despite an initial urge to move, Van Geffen decided she will return to New Orleans once it's habitable.

"It's been my home for so much of my life," she says, having lived in the city for 43 of her 50 years. She aims to live in her father's house, which can be repaired sooner than hers, and rent office space and start seeing patients in Metairie until she can rebuild her house and get back to her Lakeview office.

"Prior to Katrina, my practice was bursting at the seams," says Van Geffen. "I imagine it will take some time to build back up to full-time hours."

-Z. Stambor