Cover Story

What Now?

by Jeremy Alford

Rebuilding south Louisiana could take years, but mending minds and spirits is an entirely different task.

Amzie Adams does a little jig on Jefferson Street then clicks his self-painted shoes together. He's a visual feast of a man, with a long gray beard and matching hair all stuffed under a black top hat. There's a miniature glass eye affixed above the brim and another one on a medallion around his neck. He views the world through a set of purple shades, with a smile as bright as the morning sun that blankets Acadiana.

"I'm from New Orleans, baby," he says.

Adams, 61, is a Renaissance man ' an artist, poet and musician ' who feels comfortable in Lafayette. "I love it here, man," he says. "But it's like Back to the Future or something around here. I was walking down the street, and I heard someone yell to me, 'Good morning!' I look up, and it's some woman hanging out of a fifth floor window. That's, like, beautiful."

With every syllable, Adams issues bursts of happiness. But once you get him talking about hurricanes and New Orleans and a life left behind, the smile momentarily fades, and his eyes appear glossy behind the purple disks. "Right now I'm in survival mode," he says. "I'm hanging off the side of a cliff, and I feel like a tiger is approaching and at any moment I'll fall into an abyss."

The mental effects of hurricanes Katrina and Rita can be just as devastating as the wreckage along the Gulf Coast, says Dr. Dena Moore, a licensed professional counselor who teaches masters level crisis intervention at UL Lafayette. But the healing process ' however daunting it appears ' doesn't have to wait for the infrastructure repairs to be complete.

"What now?" asks Dr. Moore. "I believe that there are many folks across the country asking this same question and that it is indeed both timely and pertinent. In the aftermath of a crisis, quick mobilization is both necessary and appropriate. Time is a luxury we simply do not have when the water is flooding into a home or a community. But we are in a different place now."

For those still mentally dealing with last month's storms, a good first step is to get out of crisis mode, she says. There's no longer a need to hurry or panic. "Then, just listen," Moore says. "Listen to yourself. Listen to your family and children. Listen to the real needs of the people you are trying to help." The next step is acting on what you hear and feel.

Moore is quick to add a caveat ' everyone is different. Some people might not need a therapeutic process, while others need it desperately. Some might reject the notion of therapy altogether, while others have no idea where to look. But healing one's mind and spirit is tangible, she says, no matter how impossible it might seem.

Like most others displaced by Hurricane Katrina, Adams is finding ways to deal with his emotions. But lately, there only seems to be one thing that triggers his outbursts ' waking up. Every morning he cries.

"When I was living in New Orleans, I always had this nightmare that I was somewhere else, lost, trying to get back home," says Adams, who is staying with friends in Lafayette. "I would be looking at this map and not knowing where to go. Now I'm waking up in the mornings and I'm not in my own bed, and I'm realizing this is my nightmare, this is my reality."

Moore says most evacuees have been stripped of their normal routine and lost what was once their reality. People like Adams, however, show a strong will, she says. He's able to get up out of bed and carry forth with a new daily routine, whatever it might be. It's the people who are unable to mobilize that may require professional help.

"A lot of people are having trouble with their day-to-day reality," Moore says. "They know they can't go back home any time soon. But that doesn't mean the day won't come when things return to some form of normalcy."

Each person, on their own, must determine if they need some type of therapy. But if they don't, there are things they can do, Moore says: Realize that your life has been turned upside down and your feelings are normal; do not shy away from your former life; and participate in recreational activities.

Most importantly, find the things that once grounded you, Moore says. Most people suffering from a variation of post-traumatic stress disorder just need a taste of the things that made their life worth living before the crisis.

For Adams, it's his art. Before Katrina hit New Orleans, the Insley Art Gallery, located on the edge of the French Quarter, was hosting a show titled All Amzie All the Time. Dozens of Crescent City artists ' painters, sculptors, photographers ' all submitted work inspired by Adams' likeness.

So, for Adams ' a Vieux Carré fixture who has produced award-winning documentaries, been featured in National Geographic and was involved in the infamous 1960s underground newspaper NOLA Express ' being grounded means being back in New Orleans.

"I'm ready to get back," he says. "When that time comes, my healing can begin."

James Munroe, 18, sets his cookie and frozen coffee drink down. The newspapers and magazines piled up next to him at Mello Joy Café on Jefferson Street carry headlines and stories of a devastating hurricane named Rita and parts of Acadiana under water. But for the Maurice native, the crisis is miles away from his mind.

"Right now, for me, I don't feel the impact of it because my homes are fine," he says.

It's a detachment Munroe can't explain, because he saw the doom and gloom firsthand, as part of a search and rescue team that went into Erath and Pecan Island less than 24 hours after Rita made landfall. "It was still devastating for me to see those people," Munroe says. "I think some time in the future, I'll reflect back on this in a different way and get the full meaning of it."

First responders, emergency workers, government officials and members of the media are all involved in an initial mobilization of energy during natural disasters, both physically and mentally, Moore says. They are the first on the scene and often the last to leave. It often results in an adrenaline rush that helps people keep moving and continue working in the midst of traumatic surroundings.

"You get this feeling of do it, do it, do it," she says. "You have to keep moving. That pace becomes your normal. You hear about EMS workers all the time trying to go back to their normal lives, and they can't do it. They say nothing has meaning any more, that life is boring."

That's one reason why these groups of people are often geared up and ready to go in the face of a natural disaster, even if they're fresh off another one, as was the case with hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But that output of energy can only last so long.

"It's like the police officers in New Orleans, who were among the first to respond," Moore says. "Then a few days later you see all these officers walk off the job. They were depleted."

All of these groups also find it difficult to discuss their problems with people that haven't seen what they've seen, Moore says, which is why a group form of therapy is often a solution.

"Some people will never go to therapy," Moore says. "But they will talk to other people who have been through similar situations. That is where they find healing."

At the other end of the spectrum from first responders' emotions is the anguish experienced by people unaffected by the disaster, but who experience an acute sense of guilt for emerging unscathed in the wake of widespread loss around them. Moore says the term "survivor guilt" is widely credited to those who sympathized with Holocaust survivors. "It's certainly difficult when other people around you have lost everything and you haven't," says Moore. "It's probably even appropriate to a degree. I think it's what people do with that guilt that causes this to become an issue. What I see folks doing is beating themselves up and disconnecting from others who have been through something traumatic, which is the people they should be connecting with. That's when the red flag goes up, when people start disconnecting. And when the red flag goes up, we need to get some help for ourselves."

Dr. Geoff Mire, 32, spends most Saturday mornings with a cycling group, zooming around downtown Lafayette in the open air. But no matter how far he travels, Mire cannot forget the stark realities that exist in his family practice.

"I've had an evacuee in my office every day since the storms made landfall," he says on Johnston Street during a break from a bike ride. "I mean it ' not a day has gone by since then that someone hasn't come in."

In particular, one elderly man Mire had to admit into a local nursing home stands out in his memory. The 90-year-old Katrina evacuee went into the nursing home with some trepidation. "He talked about leaving his 92-year-old brother behind in New Orleans and how he had no idea where he was," Mire says.

Through sheer luck, however, the man's brother was eventually found and brought to Lafayette. Mire was there to witness the reunion. "There was a lot of hugging and crying," Mire says. "There were some emotions for me, too. When you see things like that firsthand, it really hits home."

Nineteen-year-old Mello Joy Café waitress Lauren Romein, of Lafayette, has also found a similar way to connect to the aftermath.

"I've been to a nursing home to visit this 70-year-old evacuee," she says. "It has helped me put a personal face on all of this. It was the first real evacuee I had a chance to meet. At first, it was really depressing. But after a while, it was uplifting because this woman is being so positive about everything. The fact that she is taking it so well forces me to be optimistic."

Moore says this type of inspiring and commendable response is common among caregivers and others attempting to provide help, but cautions that it causes some people to make blanket assumptions of what displaced communities really need. Instead of trying to help victims of the storms, people may be trying to work through their own problems by focusing on their personal experiences rather than focusing in on real individual needs.

"It is time to step back, take a deep breath and understand that we cannot help those in need if we don't fully understand their needs from their vantage point," Moore says. "It's time for us to stop trying to convince people that we know what's best for them. They, and only they, know their needs."

So it's not surprising to hear reports from shelters and elsewhere that evacuees feel abandoned and ignored. Each person has a different need, and often, a general quick fix will be of little help, Moore says.

She offers a simple solution: "It is time to shut up and listen. Then, and only then, can we begin to work as a community to meet the needs of all human beings in that community."

Frank Breure, 37, a Lafayette resident from the Netherlands and a member of Dr. Mire's cycling group, says he felt like he personally survived Hurricane Katrina, although he was never there. Breure heard and saw the gory details on television.

"It was upsetting to watch," says Breure, a software engineer. "It was unnerving, and the bad news just kept on coming. There were times you just felt like you should turn it off. But at some point, you thought there was going to be some good news coming on."

Adams had a similar experience with television. "Every day we're just sitting there, staring at the TV for hours and getting depressed. After a while, we all looked at each other, and we agreed to turn the TV off. The rule from then on was to only watch for updates."

Such reactions are not uncommon. "There can be trauma related to what people hear and see on TV," says Moore. "People respond to it as if it's real, as if it's right there. You're inundated with these images minute after minute. For many people, it becomes real. That's why, surprisingly, you'll see a crisis response to people who were never even there."

It may sound overly simplistic, but Moore says most people forget that the television can be turned off. "When you've had enough, you've had enough," she says. "The TV will be there in an hour when you return."

Pam Mitchell-Wagner, executive director of the Louisiana Press Association, says media outlets are slowly but surely scaling back their coverage of the storms, but she hopes it doesn't get to a point of completely ignoring the aftermath. It's a double-edge sword that must somehow be addressed.

"I think it's hard to turn away from it," she says. "What is the saturation point? You are already starting to see a mixture in newspapers, particularly more toward the northern part of the state. As the days go by, you'll start to see more and more of that mix. Sadly, I fear everyone will go on and forget about it before the rebuilding ever occurs."

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have brought to the forefront a bevy of societal issues that require attention on a variety of levels. But at this point, weeks after landfall, Moore says the focus must be on people's needs, whether they be material or mental.

As to the overall looming question ' What now? ' Moore believes there is an answer, but everyone impacted by the storms must achieve it through a group effort. Federal, state and local officials and citizens will need to find a process that lifts up the voices of those displaced by Katrina and Rita.

Says Moore, "Perhaps through community forums or town hall meetings that begin with a respectful request for attendance of the folks we claim to serve, we might begin, together, to answer the question."

Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist based in Baton Rouge. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Dallas Morning News and Gambit Weekly. You can reach him through his Web site at