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Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute & Society

Leading the Disaster Mental Health Response to Hurricane Katrina

The MPS, Crisis Response Committee (CRC): Leading the Disaster Mental Health Response to Hurricane KatrinaBy Paula Kliger, PhD, CRC Chair

On August 30, the whole world watched while Hurricane Katrina, the largest ever Category Four (4) Hurricane, packing winds and rain of more than 165 mph, devastated the Gulf Coast regions and inland areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. We found ourselves glued to television and radio newscasts that played reels and reels of repeated horrendous images. Hundreds of thousands of people, forced to evacuate their homes, lived and worked in the most devastated areas. People lost nearly everything--all personal possessions--often with the exception of the clothes they wore to escape the gargantuan storms, the escalating and enveloping flood waters. Millions lost their basic livelihoods, tenured jobs and entire businesses. And most devastating of all were the shocking deaths and traumatic separations from loved ones.

Wherever we found ourselves--in the heart of the affected areas to the remotest areas of the country, we were all affected by Katrina. Those of us who were not the first responders--those men and women seen trudging or floating through contaminated and debris-filled New Orleans flood waters looking for survivors--felt powerless, stunned, and, at first like we could only watch. But we wanted to do something. Through the repeated, shocking images, we felt more in touch with the pain and suffering, and our sense of powerlessness and helplessness grew in proportion to the cumulative impact of the images, and as feelings burgeoned, we began to express not just a want but a need to do something.

We could hear a yearning to do something to help in the voices of nearly everyone we might meet, in our practices, at the grocery store, in the cleaners, and out with family and friends. We were asked to give money to support the relief efforts. But it just did not feel like enough. Church, temple, and synagogue groups, for-profit and not-for-profit businesses, professional athletes, schools, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, individuals and families reached out and committed more of themselves to relief and recovery efforts.

The Michigan Psychoanalytic Society's Crisis Response Committee and Network, working closely with the American Red Cross (ARC) organization helped to take the lead in our Michigan area and beyond, supporting the Disaster Mental Health Katrina relief and recovery efforts. Paula Kliger, PhD, a 12-year ARC Disaster Mental Health Leader and Trainer Volunteer, coordinated work with ARC Disaster Services to recruit psychologists, social workers and psychiatrists within our psychoanalytic community (that have been trained in ARC Disaster Mental Services) for local and national disaster deployment.

Over several weeks of the relief efforts, several psychoanalytically-informed therapists and analysts affiliated with our Michigan Psychoanalytic Society and Center have given their expertise and innumerable hours of time in ARC training, preparation and deployment as Disaster Mental Health volunteers. Especially noteworthy are the following individuals:

Dr. Alan Krohn, trained in ARC Disaster Mental Health, volunteered to be deployed to the disaster site. He spent several days in preparation and then served two weeks as a Disaster Mental Health volunteer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Dr. Krohn also served as a mental health professional volunteer in Southeast Asia, assisting therapists in their work with those affected by the Tsunami.

Drs. William Nixon and Monisha Nayar, Paula Kliger and Rosie Lopez, MA have volunteered and prepared rigorously for national deployment to a nationally-affected site, as they are needed.

Drs. Susan Wainwright, Marc Hirsch, Carol Levin, Monisha Nayar, Diana Constance and Paula Kliger; Keke Pyrros, MA, Diane Lothrop, MA, and Rosie Lopez, all ARC Disaster Mental Health trained/volunteers, volunteered to be deployed locally to provide immediate mental health services to the Hurricane Katrina evacuees that came to the City of Detroit Katrina Disaster Reception Center. This Center was opened and managed by City of Detroit Emergency Services and Wayne County Community Mental Health. The Red Cross Disaster Services was called on to support these efforts. Our colleagues were/are there.
With the sensitive and caring introduction and interface of Drs. Harvey Falit and Linda Brakel, Drs. Julie Nagel (trained in DMH and a member of the CRC) and Paula Kliger met and spent a wonderful evening with Dr. Eve Fortson, MD, an analyst from New Orleans. Dr. Fortson is staying with her family in the Ann Arbor area for an indefinite period of time because she also was forced to evacuate her New Orleans home some weeks ago. We welcome Dr. Fortson to our community.

The orientation and training as well as our affiliation with the American Red Cross has allowed psychoanalysts and psychoanalytically oriented colleagues to contribute more actively within the community at large: To step into the Katrina Disaster relief and recovery situation (or similar situations), with recognizable expertise, and armed with a structure and framework that allows us to use psychodynamic understandings to help people with critical psychosocial, emotional and physical needs.

Members of the Crisis Response Committee (CRC) are not only prepared to work closely with the ARC locally and nationally. The CRC is planning longer term outreach efforts with Wayne, Oakland, Washtenaw and Macomb counties involving their mental health and emergency professionals, religious leaders, educators, and Homeland Security for purposes of learning from them and to build solid working relationships and a more integrated critical response network. Also, CRC is planning presentations and workshops for interest and educational purposes. For example: On Saturday, January 14, 2006 Dr. Alan Krohn will present his extraordinary experiences and insights from his work with the people of Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia. We look forward to seeing you and contact the CRC for more information about the next trainings and our activities.