“You’re from New Orleans right? So, did Hurricane Katrina affect you? Were your home and family devastated?” A decade after the storm ravaged the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, people still ask me these questions almost immediately after we’ve met. Asking for someone’s Katrina story is like opening a Pandora’s box—you have no idea what will emerge. As a Katrina survivor, the subject of the storm is triggering, and I’ve struggled for the “right” answers to these questions since I was 13.
Human activities, such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation, are major drivers of climate change. These unsustainable practices alter the composition of the atmosphere and increase ocean temperatures, making hurricanes more intense and frequent. With four Category 5 storms, the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season was the most active in recorded history. Hurricane Katrina was the deadliest storm to hit the United States in over seventy-five years, killing nearly 2000 people. This number does not include those who died afterward from illnesses directly or indirectly associated with the hurricane. Living in post-Katrina New Orleans is like singing a dirge at a jazz funeral—somebody might dance on the casket celebrating the life of the departed, but the music is still steeped in mourning. We wrap our sorrow in soulful music and brightly colored houses.
Ten years later, the city has been rebuilt. However, repairing infrastructure does not heal a displaced population. Communities affected by human-exacerbated natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, take a long time to recover. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is commonplace. This can lead to depression, the foremost cause of disability worldwide. Both of these mental health conditions can be sparked by distressing events like being stranded in the Superdome with 20,000 other people, not to mention the grief associated with losing your home, loved ones, or both. Even for those who didn’t experience material damage, Katrina destroyed their everyday routines, their way of life. The suicide rate in Orleans Parish in 2008 and 2009 was twice as high as the years before Katrina.
Studies have shown a high incidence of anxiety in children displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Much of this manifests as emotional and behavioral issues in school. After the storm, counseling services were offered at some New Orleans schools to students who had experienced significant loss. “Being exposed to transient home situations, not being able to get access to care and the adversity of just the recovery process…added and compounded the stress and trauma of being exposed to the devastation and personal loss of life and property during the event of the hurricane and the flooding itself,” said Anthony Speier, psychologist and deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Behavioral Health for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.
Trauma stains your memory. Every time someone asks me about Katrina, I remember driving to Texas and watching the news as the muddy water rose up to the roofs in my neighborhood. I remember the vivid dreams I had for years after, where I imagined what it would have been like if my family hadn’t evacuated—the nightmares where I was trapped in my attic watching the flood waters lap at my feet. I remember finding out my older brother had drowned in his apartment because he had stayed. I remember my cousin who gave birth to her premature son during the storm, only to have him helicoptered to a hospital in another city without her. Every time someone casually asks me about Hurricane Katrina, I remember the people who lost more than me.
We rarely talk about how climate change affects health, much less the mind. In my teens, I helped my family rebuild our home. Even with the appropriate protective gear there was risk of respiratory illness as my family was exposed to mold, fiberglass insulation, and innumerous sanitizing chemicals. However, often overlooked are the psychological effects of gutting the house I grew up in and piling my belongings on the curb for garbage collectors to haul away.
While I continue to move forward in my own post-Katrina healing process, there are millions of people around the world who have had to endure similar experiences of loss because of anthropogenic climate change. The number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes has increased 80 percent worldwide in the last forty years. Climate change means that catastrophic storms like Hurricane Katrina, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013, and Cyclone Pam in the South Pacific in 2015 will continue to destroy people’s lives. We cannot ignore how non-hurricane type disasters such as droughts, rising sea levels, and fires impact people’s mental health. To adapt to a changing climate, survivors of these natural disasters, especially those in low-income and marginalized communities, need long-term physical and mental health services.
We are all complicit in causing climate change, especially those of us from more industrialized countries. Yet, we avoid talking about it because it feels overwhelming. Even though the science behind climate change is known, it continues to be disconnected from social, political, and private life. Sociologist Kari Norgaard attributes this lack of action to the phenomenon of “socially organized denial.” Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. We must assume our responsibility to make positive change through action on climate change. Action can take many forms. This year marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and there will be a People’s Climate March in New Orleans on August 29, 2015. Other ways to get involved include reducing your individual carbon footprint, working with environmental organizations in your local community, and joining in the global discussion leading up to the international climate talks in Paris this December. Rather than just remembering what’s been lost, let’s take action so others don’t have to live with the psycho-emotional scars that accompany trauma.
Hurricane Katrina isn’t a conversation starter, but climate change and its effect on our health should be. Are you going to add your voice?
A shorter version of this piece was originally published on the Truthout website.