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Some hurricane survivors showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder

BILOXI, Miss.—When Daniel Jackson talks, he often pauses.

"I'm sorry," the 59-year-old maintenance worker said. "I'm not myself these days."

His modest home of 14 years is a sodden mess, and everything in it was lost to Hurricane Katrina's chin-high storm surge. The family pictures and beloved guitar are gone. There's no chance of resuscitating his family's two old cars.

Asked what the future holds, Jackson comes up blank.

The Gulf Coast is full of dreary stories such as Jackson's and of people who are reacting to the stress the same way he is.

Medical professionals and aid workers report that hurricane survivors are showing the tics of stress in myriad ways. They're nervous. Their hearts pound inexplicably. They startle easily and tear up even more easily. Amnesia leaves hours-long memory blanks.

Experts say some of those storm survivors are in the early stages of post-traumatic stress disorder, the psychological hangover usually associated with combat veterans. Katrina may rattle their psyches for years.

The stress will throw most survivors, however, into an unpredictable funk.

One man, dehydrated, disoriented and nearly starving, stumbled into a mobile hospital in Bay St. Louis, Miss., after spending the first five days after Katrina sleeping in a truck with a dead battery.

Doctors and nurses gave the 67-year-old man an IV of fluids. He downed a snack, then a meal.

"He came back to life," said Lee Garvey, an emergency medicine physician from Charlotte, N.C.

Then the guy asked about his bike. He'd ridden it five miles to the hospital and left it, the only significant possession he had left, parked outside with a blue-and-white beach towel draped over it. Someone looked and saw the towel neatly folded on the ground. But no bike.

Garvey braced for the man's reaction. Surely, he thought, he'll go berserk.

"He just said, `That's it. Now I've lost everything.'" Calm as could be, the doctor said. "He was just flat."

In fact, doctors, nurses and volunteers at shelters along the coast use the term "flat" to describe the deadened personalities they see moving among the hurricane wreckage.

That flatness is typical of how people cope with their rotten realities, said psychologist Kathy Reyntjens. She counsels men and women for post-traumatic stress disorder at the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System in Biloxi. The pain of confronting their situations, she said, is just too much.

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Since Katrina, she said, war veterans have been reporting flashbacks triggered by the storm's violence, the debris, the helicopters flying overhead, the putrid smells and the chaos.

One man was shaken up by the sight of two blue plastic bags on the ground.

"He thought they were body bags," Reyntjens said. "It was like he was back in Vietnam all over again."

The psychologist said it's a fool's game to predict who'll be able to shake off the stress. It's just as hard to guess how many people will suffer serious effects.

Based on experiences from Vietnam, mental health professionals had guessed that 15 percent of Iraq war veterans would be afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder. But early data suggest that it might be double that. Yet among people directly affected by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the number was well less than 10 percent.

"This should be less than that," Reyntjens said.

She tells people to talk about what's bothering them, if not with a counselor, then to someone with a friendly ear. But she said some people are slow to see that stress is affecting their emotions.

Fred Cronvich says he doesn't feel stressed. Yet his head seems to be on a swivel, constantly turning from side to side, then his chin tucks to his chest and up again. Seated on the edge of a folding chair, his right foot bounces.

"I'm fine. My place wasn't damaged," he said.

But after a time the 55-year-old retired air-conditioning technician conceded that he's bushed.

It turns out he's been up almost every night since Katrina rumbled over his home in Kiln, Miss.

"Looters," he said. "I keep them away ... with a shotgun. ... It gets old."

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HOW TO REDUCE DISASTER STRESS:

What can survivors do to reduce vulnerability to serious emotional reactions and to achieve the best recovery from disaster stress? Observations by mental health specialists who assist survivors in the wake of disaster suggest the following steps:

_ Protect: Find a haven that provides shelter, food and water, sanitation, privacy and opportunities to sit quietly, relax and sleep, at least briefly.

_ Direct: Begin working on immediate personal and family priorities to help you and your loved ones preserve or regain a sense of hope, purpose and self-esteem.

_ Connect: Maintain or re-establish communication with family, peers and counselors to talk about the experiences. Survivors may want to find opportunities to tell their stories to others who express an interest and concern and, when they are able, to listen to others as they tell theirs.

_ Select: Identify key resources such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, local and state health departments for cleanup, health, housing and basic emergency assistance. Identify local cultural or community supports to help maintain or re-establish normal activities such as attending religious services.

SOURCE: International Society for Trauma and Stress Studies

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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