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A flood of mental stress and memories

By Rhodesia Muhammad -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Sep 6, 2017 - 5:57:30 PM

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BATON ROUGE, La.—Twelve years ago, nearly 250,000 New Orleaneans fled their hometown to dodge the wrath of Hurricane Katrina and landed in Houston, Texas, a city about five hours away.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Air and Marine Operations along with multiple other agencies and good citizens provide support to communities impacted by Hurricane Harvey in Beaumont, Texas on August 30. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

Almost to the date, many of those same evacuees faced another harrowing hurricane that left many areas in Texas flooded after making landfall.

Hurricane Harvey re-stimulated emotions and heightened anxieties not only for those directly affected by the storm, but for those watching all too familiar catastrophic images of families stranded on rooftops, roads flowing like rivers, overcrowded shelters, and frantic families searching for loved ones. It struck August 25.

Licensed professional counselor Ayanna Molina put out messages on Facebook regarding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as disasters mounted.

“I began posting messages about PTSD when the August floods happened here in New Orleans a few weeks ago. I noticed people posting about their feelings and anxieties, heart beating fast, they don’t know what to do and then the interviews they saw on Harvey triggered them. People were posting crying emojis,” she said.

The month of August is a trigger because Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans August 29, 2005 and the city flooded again August 5, 2017.

In Baton Rouge, La., about an hour away from New Orleans, a storm system flooded the city leaving 13 dead and 60,000 homes damaged and destroyed last August.

“So, August has been a very difficult time for our people and I just wanted to put something out there about PTSD because people don’t know that that’s a real disorder,” she said. “When you have that disorder or when you have an experience with trauma, whether you’re under the care of a counselor, therapist, or a doctor, people still have symptoms. And it doesn’t matter if people are functioning well in life or not, they can still have anxiety and moments of depression and feeling anxious.”

Wakiti Muhammad, a former New Orleans resident, living in Houston experienced trauma all over again.

“When we evacuated from New Orleans, I left with my husband and four young children, including my one-day old infant whom I had just given birth to the day before we left. The emotional and mental stamina that it took to go through Hurricane Katrina is too drastic to put in words,” she said.

“The unplanned displacement and complete loss of life, property, and livelihood alone was a tremendous hurdle to bear. It took years to finally put life together comfortably.”

“To now experience Harvey and its traumatic ramifications on the anniversary of Katrina requires all of the lessons learned and fortitude built 12 years ago,” she said.

Chonya Johnson, a New Orleans native, was living in Washington, D.C., at the time of Hurricane Katrina. She opened her home to 21 people as Hurricane Katrina struck.

Now she lives in Houston and watched as streets around her flooded, she was waiting for the water to devastate her home. The water didn’t overwhelm her, but anxiety almost did.

“My family was directly affected in 2005 and here 12 years later I feel like I’m impacted indirectly mentally.  I didn’t have the loss, but the anxiety that came with wondering whether I would be flooded was quite scary. When I thought about Hurricane Katrina, I just jumped right into action to help, but now I feel helpless because I can’t do anything. I can’t leave my house, because it’s flooded in both directions and so that caused more anxiety. I felt like the victim this time, so to speak. I kept waking up looking out the front door, checking the alerts because I just knew my street was next,” Ms. Johnson said.

There are countless reports of what people have endured, but many subdue their feelings and symptoms because there’s a stigma around mental health, especially for Black people.

“We never really trusted people like social workers or even doctors,” therapist Ayanna Molina explained. “We have learned to not trust those type of people who want to get into our heads and I believe that we can’t trust everybody.

“Our people have been through too much because the PTSD or the trauma we’ve endured is not only from tornadoes or hurricanes, but it’s from slavery, Jim Crow, having to watch our brothers be killed by police, from having to witness our boys going to jail for minor infractions of the law, and the police never having to own up or face any charges. Now imagine slavery and all those hundreds of years we had to deal with those things. So, I understand why our people don’t trust the process of therapy, but do our people need therapy? Yes!” 

“We need therapy from our people who understand we have trust issues, we have traumatic stress issues, we have traumatic slave issues. People really do have internalized oppression. They really do feel inferior and so we have to break through all of those things and you’re not going to get that at a regular mental health counseling center,” she continued.

“But that’s the kind of mental health care our people need. They need a loving gentle approach, but also a very knowledgeable approach about the traumas that Black people have endured and I think that’s why our people repel mental health … because it doesn’t look at the whole picture.”

While challenging and even terrifying the storms have brought some a greater appreciation for life.

“I felt more prepared and honestly more detached from all of the personal possessions,” Wakiti Muhammad said. “I learned that those things could be replaced. Faith, clarity, and a plan was more important to my family’s survival. We can’t escape acts of God. I’ve learned it’s best to remain steadfast and trusting as God’s plans unfold.”

New Orleans native Shedrick Roy says he apologizes for not listening to Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan sooner about God using the forces of nature to chastise America for her mistreatment of Black people.

“Spiritually, I can really see that this stuff is coming into fruition or it has arrived and unfortunately, many of us, have ostracized and criticized Min. Farrakhan and no I’m not ‘per se’ a member of the Nation of Islam, but what this man has been saying is happening. We truly need to open our eyes because the one consistent Black leader we have, been having is him (Min. Farrakhan),” Mr. Roy stated adamantly.