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Often, the damage that extreme weather or an environmental disaster inflicts on communities works as a one-two punch. The first punch: the actual event — an oil spill, a hurricane, a winter storm, the lethal heat that scorched parts of the US as recently as a couple weeks ago. The second punch: the trauma that can persist long after the event is no more.It’s this second punch that people tend to overlook or ignore.”I don’t think that there’s a misunderstanding that all communities are hit the same,” Robert Bullard, a distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, told CNN, referring to the fact that communities of color are disproportionately hurt by extreme weather. “But I do think that when the dust clears, not enough attention is given to the post-disaster trauma that exists after the headlines are gone.”People taking shelter after winter weather caused blackouts, February 18, 2021, Houston, TexasWhat’s more, the post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression (among other things) that can occur after someone has been exposed to a catastrophic event have intensified as the climate crisis has ramped up the severity and frequency of storms and other disasters.Read More”Lots of the people who were hit hard by Winter Storm Uri still need to get their ceilings fixed or the sheetrock in their homes fixed, but they don’t have money for repairs when they keep getting hit,” said Bullard, known as the father of environmental justice. “Uri was in February, but then there was Hurricane Ida and then Hurricane Nicholas. They just keep coming. And it’s very traumatic. The mental health piece is big.”Indeed, recent years have made clear that psychological wounds can remain even after a storm has cleared out. In consequence, experts and concerned communities are stepping up to explore new strategies for addressing mental health challenges linked to climate change.’It can just be a normal rainy day’Fragile. That’s how Roishetta Ozane described the current emotional state of Lake Charles, a heavily Black city in Louisiana, parts of which were slammed by five named storms in 2020 alone.On August 29, 2021 — exactly 16 years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall — Ida struck Louisiana as a Category 4 storm, battering the state and killing more than two dozen people. In at least one area, caskets are still scattered around the community a month later.”It doesn’t even have to be a hurricane prediction. It can just be a normal rainy day, and people with high anxiety or PTSD will leave town — will not stay in their homes — because they’re afraid that there could be another flood. Lots of people want bags of sand because they’re nervous about getting any amount of rain in their homes,” Ozane told CNN.She also mentioned the ever-growing toll that destructive events can take on children, who are especially vulnerable to developing climate change-related mental health challenges. Photos: Hurricane KatrinaWater surrounds homes just east of downtown New Orleans the day after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005.Hide Caption 1 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaCars sit in traffic as people flee New Orleans on August 28, 2005. The next day, Katrina made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane with winds near 127 mph.Hide Caption 2 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaStrong winds blow the roof off the Backyard Barbeque restaurant in Kenner, Louisiana, as Katrina makes landfall on August 29, 2005.Hide Caption 3 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaArnold James tries to keep his feet as a strong gust nearly blows him over in New Orleans. The roof on his home blew off, forcing him to seek shelter at the Superdome.Hide Caption 4 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaNational Guard trucks haul displaced New Orleans residents to the Superdome a day after the hurricane flooded their neighborhoods. About 25,000 evacuees were sheltered at the stadium.Hide Caption 5 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaPolice officer Terrence Gray helps Lovie Mae Allen and group of children evacuate their flooded homes in Gulfport, Mississippi.Hide Caption 6 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaA man swims by the Circle Food Store in flooded New Orleans.Hide Caption 7 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaThe hands of Shirley Ward, 40, are waterlogged after she was rescued on New Orleans’ Rocheblave Street.Hide Caption 8 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaParamedic David Mitchell examines Greg Farteberry on the roof of a destroyed home in New Orleans as Farteberry’s friend Eric Charles holds his hand. Farteberry broke his ankle during the storm and spent the night on the roof until he was rescued.Hide Caption 9 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaA New Orleans resident carries bottled water as she walks through oil-coated floodwaters downtown.Hide Caption 10 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaA mother and her children are rescued by boat in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.Hide Caption 11 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaCoast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott D. Rady pulls a pregnant woman from her flooded New Orleans home.Hide Caption 12 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaEvelyn Turner cries alongside the body of her longtime companion, Xavier Bowie, after he died in New Orleans. Turner and Bowie decided to ride out Hurricane Katrina when they could not find a way to leave the city. Bowie, who had lung cancer, died when he ran out of oxygen. He was 57.Hide Caption 13 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaFloodwaters pour through a levee along the Inner Harbor Navigational Canal near downtown New Orleans.Hide Caption 14 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaNew Orleans police officer Mark Wilson yells at people in stores looters on Canal Street. In Katrina’s aftermath, many questioned whether some people accused of looting were just people scavenging for the supplies they needed to survive.Hide Caption 15 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaA section of the Mississippi bridge connecting Ocean Springs with Biloxi was wiped out by the storm.Hide Caption 16 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaIn this handout photo provided by the White House, President George W. Bush looks out over Katrina devastation as he rides Air Force One back to Washington, DC.Hide Caption 17 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaNew Orleans police and volunteers use boats to rescue residents from a flooded neighborhood on the east side of New Orleans.Hide Caption 18 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaCars are piled up in debris in Gulfport, Mississippi.Hide Caption 19 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaBoats travel down a flooded highway in New Orleans.Hide Caption 20 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaThe Stump family stays in their car in Biloxi, Mississippi, after their home was destroyed by Katrina.Hide Caption 21 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaNew Orleans residents are rescued by a helicopter on August 31, 2005, two days after Katrina made landfall.Hide Caption 22 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaMembers of the National Guard, standing in the foreground, watch over evacuees who took shelter at the Superdome in New Orleans. The shaft of light came from a hole in the roof of the dome.Hide Caption 23 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaFrom left, Tam Cu, Jason Jackson and Linda Bryant look for belongings from Bryant’s home, which was devastated in Biloxi, Mississippi.Hide Caption 24 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaJason Jennison, an aviation survival technician with the US Coast Guard, pulls a Katrina survivor aboard a helicopter in New Orleans.Hide Caption 25 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaResidents wait to be rescued from a rooftop in New Orleans on September 1, 2005.Hide Caption 26 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaWind and water damage to the Superdome roof created unsafe conditions, leading authorities to conduct emergency evacuations there.Hide Caption 27 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaMembers of the National Guard stand outside the Superdome as emotional evacuees await their next destination.Hide Caption 28 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaA dead body is seen in the foreground as people push a boat outside the Superdome on September 2, 2005.Hide Caption 29 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaA military helicopter makes a food and water drop near the Convention Center in New Orleans.Hide Caption 30 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaThousands of New Orleans residents gather at a evacuation staging area along Interstate 10 in Metairie, Louisiana.Hide Caption 31 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaTerri Jones tries to cool Dorthy Divic, an 89-year-old who was overheated and exhausted at the Convention Center in New Orleans.Hide Caption 32 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaThis aerial photo shows a flooded neighborhood adjacent to the 12th Street levee in New Orleans.Hide Caption 33 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaCharlene Veillon hugs her grandson Thearon Ellis after they learned that her daughter Joanna Ellis was killed during Hurricane Katrina in Waveland, Mississippi.Hide Caption 34 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaA man clings to the top of a vehicle in New Orleans before being rescued by the Coast Guard.Hide Caption 35 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaA man in the foreground looks at Katrina evacuees who received food, shelter and medical attention at the Astrodome in Houston.Hide Caption 36 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaEugene Green holds his baby, Eugene Jr., as they wait to be airlifted from a highway overpass in New Orleans on September 4, 2005.Hide Caption 37 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaLeonard Thomas cries after a SWAT team burst into the flooded New Orleans home he and his family were living in. Neighbors had reported that they were squatting in the house in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but the authorities left after his family proved they owned the house.Hide Caption 38 of 39 Photos: Hurricane KatrinaA helicopter drops sandbags to plug a levee in New Orleans on September 11, 2005.Hide Caption 39 of 39“I don’t think that the rest of the US understands how much school students in southwest Louisiana have missed over the past year or how difficult that burden has been,” she said. “We all were on lockdown starting in March 2020. Then Hurricane Laura hit, and our kids were out of school until September. And then as soon as they went back to school, Hurricane Delta hit, and they were out of school until late October.”Bullard echoed some of Ozane’s sentiments.”Not having adequate mental health services to deal with anxiety, fear, trauma — it’s become a real problem in our schools,” he said. “Whenever it rains, kids wonder if they’re going to have to evacuate.”Here, it’s worth highlighting the sobering legacy of Katrina, a monstrous Category 3 hurricane that claimed more than 1,800 lives and pulverized large swaths of majority-Black New Orleans. More than any other storm in US history, Katrina has become a symbol of the way that national trauma can unfold along racial lines in cities marked by segregation and poverty — cities such as New Orleans.A study published in 2010 concluded that almost half of largely young, low-income, Black mother participants were likely to have experienced PTSD in Katrina’s wake. Similarly, a study published in 2016 found that “the odds for screening positive for depression (following Katrina) were higher for African Americans than for Caucasians,” even after taking into account other factors.A way forwardHow to address these psychological blows?It’s a question that experts are parsing more and more, as the climate crisis escalates. Just last year, 17 national organizations announced the formation of the Social Climate Leadership Group, a broad effort to generate awareness of the mental health dimension of climate change — or the “social crisis within the climate crisis,” per the group.One step on the path toward grappling with this challenge: simply acknowledging the problem.”What didn’t happen in New Orleans was a public mental health system that could say to people and reassure them and make them feel safe, just letting people know that they’re having normal responses to an abnormal situation,” Denese Shervington, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Tulane University School of Medicine, told NPR last year. “Their anxiety is real, their mild depression depending on the amount of losses they’ve had. But they can cope.”Still, deeper reform of the mental health care system is necessary. This work ought to include making mental health resources more readily available to the groups — people of color, low-income communities — disproportionately harmed by climate change.”It is not going to be enough, at all, for what we are facing. It will never be enough because of the scale of trauma we face,” Kritee Kanko, a Colorado-based climate scientist, said in a recent conversation with The Washington Post. “I’m thinking about marginalized, racialized communities here who don’t have the financial privilege.”People stranded by Hurricane Katrina waiting to be airlifted, September 4, 2005, New Orleans, LouisianaConfronting the mental health component of the climate crisis must also involve paying attention to the specific needs of communities and supporting their cultures of resilience, as the Social Climate Leadership Group notes.Ozane, the Lake Charles resident, offered a vivid picture of what resilience can look like, especially when government agencies’ efforts fall short, policy proposals aside.To help take care of victims’ material and psychological needs following several extreme weather events earlier this year, Ozane, along with Dominique Darbonne, co-founded The Vessel Project, a local disaster response group. In Ida’s wake, the partnership raised around $30,000. The money went straight into the hands of evacuees. No bureaucracy. No red tape.”It was a direct response to people here who were in dire need of basic necessities after big storms,” Ozane said. “We asked people, ‘What do you need to be made whole again?’ Some needed things like diapers and food. Others needed to have their homes repaired. So, we raised money and worked with other mutual aid groups to get some people back into their homes.”She added: “It was like, wow, this is what big organizations should be doing — just asking people what they need to be themselves again.”
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