From the CEO
I hesitated writing this column since it is my fourth one about New Orleans in the last year, and last month's Monitor focused on the convention there. But I did want to make a final statement on one of the most fulfilling experiences many of us have had as APA members.
Connecting to the local residents
The comment that I heard most frequently from convention attendees was how grateful and welcoming the local residents were. From taxi drivers to hotel and restaurant staff to shop workers, New Orleanians seemed to embrace and be sincerely excited by our presence. More attendees than I can remember told me about interactions with local residents that were truly touching.They told of hearing stories of devastation and despair (with spontaneous crying by some), but also of hope, gratitude and resilience. Many attendees mentioned how proud they were to be associated with APA and its decision to stick with New Orleans.
Many attendees took the opportunity to get away from the convention area and tour the more devastated regions. It is hard to capture all that I heard about the effect these visits had on meeting attendees. But I will share one person's experience. Dr. Robin Hailstorks, who is now a member of the APA staff, toured the city with a group of students who accompanied her to the convention.
In an e-mail she wrote, "The highlight for me was getting on the bus in the middle of the street after touring Tulane University. We were all struck by how the poorer city residents suffered disproportionately during Hurricane Katrina. The uptown areas seemed virtually untouched! A picture is indeed worth a thousands words! We had heard this news nationally but could not put it into perspective until conducting this tour. Our bus driver on the tour was so personable he stopped being the driver and became a friend. He had the biggest smile on his face when we all began to run toward the bus. We were elated to be received this way.
The people on the bus were anxious to tell us their stories and to talk about how well they are doing, although it was clear that many of them were struggling financially. I was humbled by an African-American gentleman who had his dry cleaning across his lap and was counting pennies. I will never forget our conversation.... He was so upbeat.... I wanted to give him money, but I didn't want to hurt his pride. It took all of my inner strength not to cry in front of this man. I shook his hand and told him that I would keep him in prayer. He said that he was fine and that he did not lose any family members. At this point in the conversation several people started talking to us. What rich conversations we had. After returning to the hotel we all felt good about the day. We had connected with a piece of New Orleans in a way that would help us all grow--the rich and poor, the new-comers and the native born, the opportunists and the committed, the indifferent and the grateful, the pessimists and the optimists. This was indeed an experience to be had."
The long road to recovery
An added benefit of us sticking with New Orleans was that we were contributing to the rebirth of that one-of-a-kind city. We ended up with 9,600 total attendees at the convention, which was more than the 8,000 we budgeted for. Our presence contributed more than $17 million to the local economy, helping businesses to recover, helping them create and sustain jobs, and helping residents to regain their lives. Our presence, coupled the numerous volunteer activities attendees initiated and participated in, is something we can all be proud of. However, if you watched any of the TV broadcasts or newspaper reports observing the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, you know that the Gulf Region has a long way to go to achieve any semblance of recovery. Hundreds of thousands of people from Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas remain displaced, with their homes in disrepair or destroyed, living in unfamiliar places, in limbo about their futures.
And the mental health consequences are beginning to show. In a comprehensive survey of the region published in August in the Journal of the American Medical Association, it was found that the mental health needs of those affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are staggering, with high rates of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and a threefold increase in suicide rates. All this is coupled with a sharp reduction in mental health-care workers and facilities. This is all to say that as we move on with our lives, the needs of the people affected by the hurricanes continue. Let us not forget.