Feature

Even before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, hundreds of psychologists were prepared to assist the storm's victims and disaster workers throughout the 90,000 affected square miles of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

Many of those volunteers are members of APA's Disaster Response Network (DRN), which the American Red Cross and APA's Practice Directorate activated at 9:34 a.m. on Aug. 29, about two hours after the storm hit the coast.

The DRN collaborates with the American Red Cross-the nation's largest disaster-relief organization-to dispatch psychologists trained in disaster response to help victims cope with stressful and often tragic circumstances. The Red Cross's infrastructure provides quick mobilization of a large number of psychologists to disaster-relief locations, says APA DRN Director Marguerite Schroeder. Since the DRN's launch in 1992, its more than 2,000 members have volunteered more than $5.4 million of services and 12,000 days.

In the three affected states, the responders listened to victims' stories, referred them to community resources and provided other information, such as where victims could find medical care, food or clothing-all the while working to be sensitive to the region's various cultures, from Cajun to American Indian to Hispanic and African American (see page 28).

Beyond the DRN's immediate response, the psychology community also reached out to raise money for evacuees and create a variety of aftermath programs to provide longer-term therapy for victims. Psychologists also set up resources to help displaced colleagues, including www.displacedpsychologists.org (see page 28).

But in the disaster's earliest days, the DRN responders were among the first on the scene, and their efforts continue as they work to help evacuees adjust to their new circumstances.

These are just a few of their stories.

'There's a part of me that remains in Louisiana'

Six days after Katrina's landfall, DRN responder Richard Heaps, PhD, a Brigham Young University counseling psychology professor, arrived in Alexandria, La., 218 miles northwest of New Orleans. While Alexandria's damage was mainly limited to power outages, downed trees and gas shortages, its greatest challenge was housing nearly 10,000 evacuees from New Orleans and other Gulf Coast towns who were unprepared for such a long stay away from their homes, Heaps says.

"People in the shelters were used to spending one, two, three days after a hurricane and then returning home," he says. "Nobody was used to sustained long-term displacement."

Heaps spent 13-hour days shuttling between four to seven shelters, where he helped evacuees cope with their newfound homelessness by drawing their attention to the value of their safety, security and interpersonal relationships. "They had lost their past lives-houses, photographs and artifacts were all gone-but there was also a sense of optimism in that they had a sense they would get through this," Heaps says.

He also assisted evacuees' efforts to reunite with loved ones by using a Red Cross database, making repeated phone calls-and even relying on luck. For example, one man in a shelter was watching "The Oprah Winfrey Show" broadcast from the Houston Astrodome when he saw Winfrey hug his wife, who he had not seen since the storm hit. Heaps and his colleagues worked with a local church and Houston Red Cross workers to transport the husband to Houston to reunite with his wife and daughter.

Throughout the recovery mission, Heaps was impressed with the collaboration among local and national Red Cross workers.

"Typically in past disasters [the national Red Cross workers] provide services, help those who need it and then move out, so there are not a lot of long-term connections," he explains. "But because we worked alongside local people, we developed close bonds. And there's a part of me that remains in Louisiana."

A life-altering event

Cleveland-based private practitioner and DRN responder Kurt Jensen, PsyD, got a call from the American Red Cross on Sept. 1. He took the next available flight to Montgomery, Ala. and then drove 168 miles to a Mobile, Ala., shelter that mainly housed area residents, as well as some mentally ill and homeless people who had few places to turn in the storm's wake. Many at the shelter referred to the storm as a nearly apocalyptic, life-altering event.

"A number of people said that the storm gave them pause and led them to reassess their lives," he says. Numerous people asked what message God was trying to convey to them. As a result, Jensen used their spiritual base as a platform to discuss ways the hurricane presented new directions and opportunities for them.

"People were reflecting on the meaning and purpose of their life decisions-from career choices to relationships with family and friends," he says.

Although many of the evacuees' homes were

destroyed, Jensen was impressed with their ability to cope with their losses.

"This experience reaffirmed my belief in the resilience of people facing even the most dire of circumstances," he says. "It's remarkable to witness first-hand individuals' and families' efforts to re-establish normalcy in the wake of a disaster."

'Katrina affected people from all walks of life'

Soon after arriving in Jackson, Miss., Dubuque, Iowa clinician and DRN responder Ann Ernst, PhD, and her colleagues set up a service center to help evacuees sort through health-care and mental health-care services, as well as pastoral counseling services. They worked alongside a Mississippi Department of Human Services booth that distributed food stamps. The lines of people needing help seemed to never dwindle, despite the 90-degree heat, she says. However, Ernst and her colleagues made sure that everyone received psychological support, as well as other services, such as medical care and notices of relocation opportunities.

"The whole key was collaboration," she says, regarding the referral whirlwinds between the shelter's service-center stations.

Ernst listened to people's stories and helped them figure out the steps they needed to take to get their lives back in order. She also urged children to draw pictures to process their emotions. "By drawing, the children were able to communicate their disappointment and stress," she says.

The evacuees from the greatest distances, such as New Orleans, she notes, were the most diverse, including college faculty and other professionals.

Katrina affected people from all walks of life," she says.

'I had the time to help'

On Sunday, Sept. 4, psychologist Edward Sheridan, PhD, received APA CEO Norman Anderson's e-mailed plea for psychologists to join the APA/Red Cross Disaster Response Network on the Gulf Coast. Sheridan immediately downloaded and faxed the forms to the American Red Cross national headquarters in Washington, D.C., and within 24 hours he found out that he would be deployed to Louisiana.

"I had the time and energy to try to help," says the former University of Houston provost. The Red Cross sent Sheridan to Gonzales, La.-50 miles north of New Orleans-where, by the time he arrived on Sept. 8, an expo center housed more than 1,800 evacuees. Some had evacuated and arrived before the storm, others continued to trickle in after spending days in the New Orleans Superdome or convention center. A few even arrived on foot: "We had people who walked there all the way from New Orleans," Sheridan says.

The Red Cross appointed Sheridan director of mental health services at the shelter, where he led an interdisciplinary team that included a psychiatrist, nurse and social worker, among others. Everyone worked 12- to 14-hour days, on their feet, in an environment that was very atypical for a psychologist, Sheridan says.

"You didn't have an office, you had a triage table," he says. "You'd make a very quick assessment of what the person needed. If you decided they needed to talk, you might go for a walk with them. If you thought they needed ongoing psychotherapy, you tried to link them to the nearest mental health center. If you found out they needed methadone, you tried to link them to a methadone clinic nearby. You made quick decisions."

The key, Sheridan says, was to be flexible and provide what was most needed at the moment. For one woman, who was acutely anxious about the pet she had left in New Orleans, Sheridan even called her local police department, which sent in officers to retrieve the pet from the woman's apartment.

"That's not a service that a psychologist would usually provide," Sheridan says.

Lea Winerman contributed to this report.