Emotional Band aid
De Soto man joins team helping soothe Gulf’s fragile psyches
Having applied an emotional first aid to storm-ravaged residents of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Lyle Lancaster said most are ready to move on.
Lancaster, a De Soto resident and school psychologist with the Turner school district in Kansas City, Kan., spent the first week of October in Biloxi, Miss., as part of a victim assistance team. The team was made up of fellow school psychologists trained and certified by the National Organization of Victim Assistance, a group formed in 1975 to promote and provide services to victims of crimes and crisis.
Lancaster said he participated in NOVA team counseling efforts on the local level in response to the death of a student or teacher but not larger projects, such as NOVA teams that visited Florida after the 2004 hurricanes.
With the support of his wife, Kim, and his school district's superintendent, Lancaster was able to join a regional victim assistance team assigned to one of 48 disaster relief stations the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up along the Gulf Coast.
FEMA's approach is to offer one-stop shopping at the centers with different aid agencies and expertise available at the front line, Lancaster said. The NOVA team members gave their professional expertise to those seeking aid.
"That's what FEMA calls it, but we were careful not to call it that," he said, explaining that word was reserved for the mental health professionals to whom they referred victims. "It was more like an emotional Band-Aid.
"Often times, we're there just to listen. And also we can make referrals if they need more than the Band-Aid we're offering."
The Band-Aid could come in the form of going over a brochure explaining predictable responses and possible red flags to the disaster, Lancaster said. It could come as reassurances that a slip in a toddler's potty training was normal, he said.
But there were other hurricane victims who obviously needed help, such as a woman who had witnessed her husband's death.
"One lady wasn't sleeping well," Lancaster said. "She was only eating crackers and peanut butter. That's a pretty big sign."
Arriving in Biloxi more than a month after the hurricane, the team was seeing those with "second trauma," Lancaster said. The victims were dealing with the difficult cleanup or insurance entanglements that saw many claims denied because hurricane insurance didn't protect against flood damage, he said.
Ahead for some victims lay post-traumatic stress. It is more likely to affect the socially isolated, Lancaster said. Those with connections to family, church or other community are less likely to suffer from the syndrome, he said.
Additional mental-health experts are being hired, so it appears authorities are aware of the issue, Lancaster said.
Despite the concerns, most residents seemed upbeat and ready to move on, Lancaster said.
"I was really impressed," he said. "Maybe it is a Southern thing. Everybody's talking to everybody.
"I heard one woman say, 'I lost everything, but I'm working.'"
With some exceptions -- such as a woman who complained that FEMA cut her neighbor a larger relief check -- residents seemed ready to take care of their needs and were grateful for the help they did receive, Lancaster said. He recalled one veteran who lost his electric wheelchair in the storm patiently waiting for its replacement before the team secured him a conventional replacement.
Reflecting on the experience, Lancaster said his lasting impression was the magnitude of the destruction Hurricane Katrina visited on the Gulf Coast.
Mississippi cities to the west of Biloxi like Waveland and Bay St. Louis in the path of the hurricane's eye were virtually wiped out, he said. In Biloxi, 500- and 600-ton casino "boats" were moved two blocks from their anchorage by the force of the storm surge. Homes near the shore stood no chance against the onslaught and those two-and-half miles inland suffered severe flooding, he said.
The destruction surprised even natives who had survived 1969's Hurricane Camille, which had been the benchmark for devastation.
"The interesting thing was people told me they'd been through Camille and it wasn't so bad," he said. "I talked to one woman who said she sat on the porch during Camille with a baby in her arms."
The woman had a much different experience with Katrina. She and her husband barely survived the hurricane in the attic of their home, watching the last of the storm surge's brown water spiral out of their home as if it were a commode, Lancaster said.
"I had an engineer tell me Camille lasted for 30 minutes, while Katrina stayed for hours," he said.
The scope of the recovery effort would test the organization's ability of the federal government, the only jurisdiction with the resources to adequately respond, Lancaster said. But he said the quality of people FEMA is hiring to help with the recovery should help.
"They hired pretty charismatic people in the community -- people who good comes out in them when they try to help," Lancaster said. "That's what it comes down to. It's going to take the common every day guy one lot at a time and one roof at a time until it's all done."
Whenever that is completed, it will differ from what existed, Lancaster predicted.
"One thing we talk about in crisis intervention is normal is not normal again," he said. "It will be interesting to see what the new normal is."