BILOXI, Miss. — On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case against ExxonMobil involving an oil spill disaster 19 years ago. In that time, almost one-fifth of the original 33,000 plaintiffs and several lawyers have passed away.
While that's not to imply that Hurricane Katrina insurance litigation will drag on as long or painfully, some social scientists are saying lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez disaster have application to the Gulf Coast's physical and mental recovery. "True community recovery lies in perceptions, the mental health and social quality of life of survivors," said Steve Picou, a University of South Alabama researcher and self-described practical sociologist, who has been following the mental and physical health of Prince William Sound, Alaska, since the spill.
"We've moved into a more complex pattern of (post-disaster community) impacts that we need to have new ideas in terms of interventions. It's a formidable challenge to traditional emergency response and traditional mental health services." Picou pointed out in a recent interview that negative symptoms didn't appear for years in many Alaskans and that a rash of suicides related to slow recovery didn't until four years later.
Picou said he plans to apply those lessons to a newly funded set of surveys and community resiliency exercises in South Mississippi and the greater New Orleans area. His efforts will include attempts at helping survey participants cope with what is certain to be a myriad of problems
Sorting through those problems remains an imperfect art, Picou said.
"We all have trials and tribulations in our lifetime, but when people are put in a situation where their future is uncertain, what we learned about those civic institutions being there for us, when that fails, they have a hard time functioning in a sustainable manner for longsperiods of time," Picou said. "That uncertainty leads to stress and, of course, stress leads to various types of problems in day to day life."
Picou said he created a series of surveys that not only asked Alaskans how they were doing, but how the survey givers could help. That helped reduce uncertainty and gave rise to community support groups.
Picou called it a "give hugs not shrugs," which could probably be better labeled a "kind of an applied public sociology." Others like Ronald Kessler, the Harvard professor heading the Katrina Advisory Group (KAG,) say their experiences following past disasters like the Oklahoma City bombing and the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks have shown the need to get a firmer grasp on the social and mental needs of disaster-affected populations.
"We're learning more and more of the high level of unmet needs of the people of this population," Kessler said. "It's so clear that the number of people who need help is so much greater than the resources available."
The KAG has a core of a little more than 1,000 participants from across storm-affected region who will be interviewed annually over five years about their mental state and unmet needs.
The results already have been eye-opening. For example, the most recent survey, published in the Archives of General Psychology, found that nearly half of their participants displayed some kind of mood disorder and that the overall level of unmet needs has risen since hte hurricane. People had a harder timing getting help as the immediate crisis passed.
Participants report mixed results. Shaun Chambers, currently displaced from New Orleans to South Carolina, said answering the survey questions was sometimes difficult.
"I don't really want to say it was invasive, it just brought up some disturbing memories," said Chambers, who waded out of his home after the storm. "I don't know, at certain times it was like rubbing salt into the wound."
Others said participating in the survey could be cathartic.
"In a way it was kind of an honor that I was able to have a voice in some sense," said Beth Mumme, who was forced from her home in Bay St. Louis, Miss., and now lives in Ohio. "I was surprised."
After one round of taking part in the survey, Mumme said she realized based on the questions that one of her daughters may have been displaying symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The discovery prompted a few trips to the psychologist and eventually her daughter was feeling better. Indeed the overall experience of taking part in the survey has allowed Mumme and her family to gain the kind of perspective and peace that Kessler and Picou hope all on the Coast will eventually have. "It truly was an experience for me that made me appreciate life more," Mumme said. "Knowing how resilient I am, it was an affirming situation because it was only things that we lost."
Maintaining that peace in an often sluggish recovery process is the challenge, Picou said, pointing to the ongoing Valdez disaster.
"You need all the help you can get to get over a disaster like Katrina," Picou said. "Like Valdez, it has economic implications, lifestyle implications. It really takes a toll on everyone."