Imagine losing everything you’ve got - your home, your car, your job, your pets and maybe even family members.
Before you can begin to absorb this crushing loss, you’re forced to evacuate, ending up hundreds of miles away from home. Now culture shock and homesickness are added to your burden.
That’s the reality faced by many of the survivors of Hurricane Katrina who now live in Georgia. While some evacuees are doing well, others can’t even provide the basic necessities for their families.
“One thing we’re trying to do is to tell people not to lump everyone together,” says Denise Pope of Project Hope, a state program for Katrina evacuees that is sponsored by the Georgia Department of Human Resources.
“There are many different things people are dealing with. Some of those things include transportation, jobs, finding affordable housing,” Pope says. “It may mean getting retrained. Many evacuees had jobs that didn’t transfer well. There is emotional stress. Many are separated from community, friends and family. There have been some who are struggling with isolation.”
Some symptoms of this emotional distress include a feeling of helplessness and hoplessness, uncontrollable crying, difficulty in decision making, inability to sleep or nightmares, unexpected flashbacks, and feeling isolated, detached, agitated, irritable or angry.
Project Hope was started as a result of a grant given to the state by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources. Money for the grant comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.
The program operates through various community service boards and mental health boards. The Savannah area is served by Behavioral Health Link of Atlanta, of which Pope is the director.
Many of Katrina’s victims are literally having to start over. “It’s difficult to find affordable housing,” Pope says. “In the more rural areas, there are transportation problems. People from New Orleans are used to a close-knit community where they can walk to everything or use public transportation.”
Project Hope is focused on helping people learn about Georgia so they can build a new life here, Pope says.
“One of the interesting things about those in Georgia is that many moved away from areas where they were placed, but they have remained in Georgia. Of the original 100,000 evacuees, 85,000 are still here. We do think a significant number are in the Savannah area,” she says.
“Many people who came to Georgia came because they had connections in Georgia,” she says. “A lot of people who did not initially evacuate from the storm were moved to Texas. Those who self-evacuated came here before the storm.”
Individuals and organizations in Georgia were both supportive and generous immediately after the disaster, Pope says. While there was an outpouring at first,, that support has sagged somewhat since, Pope says. “Communities at times have wanted to move on,” she says.
“People have been somewhat impatient with evacuees and the need to help them,” Pope says. “People need to understand that it takes a long time to get adjusted and to get back on your feet after a disaster.”
It’s not just financial issues that are holding evacuees back, but emotional ones, as well. “People haven’t taken responibility they needed to and ended up in trouble,” Pope says.
“There are other people who have been severely impeded from getting back on their feet and need continued support,” she says. “You can’t lump everyone together. A lot of the media seems to be putting a stigma on evacuees.”
By contrast, some evacuees are doing so well that they seem to have been absorbed by the communities around them. “One of our biggest challenges in finding them,” Pope says.
“There is no database,” she says. “We’ve had to rely on them calling us. Even if they don’t have needs, we’d like to contact them and see how they are doing.”
James Wimmer and Iris Litt are crisis outreach workers for Behavioral Health Link who are based in Southeast Georgia. “We travel all over Southeast Georgia just to get the word out about an 800 number Katrina survivors can call,” Wimmer says.
The problems of evacuees are many and varied, he says. “It all depends on who you talk to,” Wimmer says. “Some have basic needs, such as need for food, clothing and shelter because they don’t have enough money to buy the basics. Some have money and jobs, but need help with FEMA paperwork. Others need group counseling or individual counseling. Some need to talk with other evacuees.”
Wimmer says some callers to the Project Hope crisis line may be shocked when they hear that it is also a suicide prevention line. Suicide rates among Katrina survivors are higher than the national norm.
Whatever the reason they call, Wimmer says help is available.
“A counselor will talk to them at their end, then contact us,” he says. “Once we have a name and number, we set up a face-to-face meeting. Our area covers Savannah, Springfield, goes to the Florida line and all the way to Laurens County.”
United Way of the Coastal Empire President Greg Schroeder says about 1,100 evacuees came to Savannah. “There was a tremendous community response,” he says. “Between 20 to 30 apartments were provided for people. We worked with the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and America’s Second Harvest to help them.”
Not nearly as many evacuees are contacting the United Way these days. “Once we got people situated in apartments and with job assistance, people either came into society here or moved out,” Schroeder says.
At one point, Katrina victims were seen separately from all other people seeking help. “When we had the deluge, we had people lined up in the hall,”
Schroeder says. “Now we’re at a point where we would not segregate Katrina victims in any way.”
The American Red Cross also has seen a sharp decrease in Katrina victims seeking help, says Robin Wingate, CEO for the Savannah Chapter. She sees that as a good sign that evacuees are adapting to their new home.
“The Red Cross continues to work with disaster victims and coordinate information and referrals,” Wingate says. “We help identify needs. We communicate with local groups, churches and other social service agencies. We are still working and communicating to deal with people with unmet needs.” ç
Still dealing with Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath? Here are some numbers where assistance can be obtained.
Project Hope Crisis Counseling Hotline, which is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: 1-800-273-TALK.
Helpline Georgia, which provides local numbers for food stamps, Medicaid, housing authorities and more: 1-800-338-6745.
Chatham County Health Department: 356-2441.
United Way of the Coastal Empire: 651-7700.
Salvation Army: 651-7420.
Savannah Chapter of the American Red Cross: 651-5300.