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CSC hosts disaster relief academic forum

Kate Antonacci | Monday, September 12, 2005

While the country – Notre Dame included – was stunned by the devastation Hurricane Katrina left behind, the University community was quick to act by jumping headlong into the aid and relief efforts.

The Center for Social Concerns (CSC) did its part by organizing a full day of events to both aid the efforts and educate the community about the issue. As part of Hurricane Katrina Response Day, the CSC hosted an Academic Forum for Disaster Relief Friday in the CSC Coffee House.

The event, moderated by Bill Purcell, associate director for Catholic Social Tradition and Practice at the CSC, featured four speakers: Justin Poché, a doctoral candidate in history, psychologist Len Hickman, economics professor Jennifer Warlick and Stephanie Williams of the local chapter of the Red Cross.

Purcell introduced the forum by asking the audience, “What’s the response for Hurricane Katrina? How do we use our minds and bodies? What are the ways we can respond?”

Poché, a New Orleans native, was the first to speak, giving the history of the New Orleans area.

“It’s nice to do something to give back,” Poché said. “I’m very homesick.”

Poché described the New Orleans area as a place that has often generated more heat than light.

“It is only now in the wake of a national tragedy that it gains some attention,” he said.

Louisiana, like many places in the south, had a movement of families from rural areas into the cities – which led to limited housing, raised rents, crowded schools, persistent violence and high prices, Poché said. “Superghettos” were formed, where the lower class and minorities often lived.

There was a “reinforced insulation of the communities from the rest of New Orleans,” Poché said.

Hurricane Katrina has brought the chance for people to reflect on the urban underclass in New Orleans and to reflect on national values, Poché said.

“It is difficult to avoid a deep sense of humanity,” he said – noting that among glaring contradictions, people have a surprising connectedness to one another. “Perhaps the images coming through today will move us to finish the job.”

Hickman began his speech by letting the audience know the University Counseling Center is now located in the old post office building near Main Circle, if anyone requires their services.

“There have been major disasters and crises in this country,” he said. “We need to be available for people who need it and want to use us.”

However, Hickman said that what people need most after a crisis is first aid – water, food, safety and a roof over their head.

“Some may need some psychological first aid, but that doesn’t mean a therapist,” Hickman said.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is often a result of traumatic events, like Hurricane Katrina. PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents or violent personal assaults like rape, Hickman said.

“PTSD doesn’t apply to what is going on in New Orleans now,” Hickman said. “It could be in four months, six months from now.”

Individuals in New Orleans are likely experiencing acute stress disorder now, which often occurs anywhere from two days to four weeks after an event, Hickman said.

However, Hickman said it is likely PTSD will be seen in the south in coming months.

“The situation was not what we’ve come to expect,” Hickman said. “We’re used to the Red Cross bringing coffee and blankets, not bodies floating down the streets for five days.”

People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping and feel detached or estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person’s daily life.

Still, Hickman said positives often come out of tragedy.

“The effects of traumatic events are not always negative. Resilience is the most common response to trauma,” he said.

Those at risk for PTSD include females, ages 40 to 60, ethnic minorities, people of low income status, witnesses of grotesque death and those who suffer from physical injury, resource or social support deterioration, alienation and mistrust, Hickman said.

Warlick spoke on the economic impact of Hurricane Katrina. Individuals in the New Orleans area already had significantly lower incomes than the rest of the country. While the median of American household annual income earnings is $42,000 and $33,000 for Louisiana, 50 percent of houses in New Orleans made ends meet on only $27,000 or less annually, she said.

Warlick said economic policymakers at every level are going to be struggling to meet the needs of the people affected in different ways.

“The last thing we want to do is forget the people who lost the most,” she said. “Economists do sometimes try to put a monetary value on a life – we don’t want to do that.”

Warlick also said economic struggle in the area will come about in large part because many of the people who died in New Orleans were important sources of income and economic support for families in the area.

Advanced societies have societal safety nets to keep people from being totally destitute. The struggle now, Warlick said, is to see what kinds of nets were actually in place before Katrina and see how they are responding.

Though individuals often had private safety nets – like home insurance – they are of little value. Most homes in the damaged areas were insured against wind damage but not flooding.

“Even people who had home insurance – not many would be able to receive a replacement value,” Warlick said.

While welfare is an option, to receive such funds one has to be working.

“How do you respond if there are not jobs available?” Warlick said.

A further problem is that programs like welfare and food stamps require proof of residency and birth certificate, an impossible task for people who may have left documentation in their now-ruined homes.

Warlick said it appears as if the federal government will have to spend $200 billion on rebuilding the New Orleans area.

Williams spoke about the efforts by the Red Cross to offer aid to hurricane victims.

So far, almost 160,000 people have been housed across 17 states. Millions of meals have been given out thanks to the hands of over 32,000 volunteers, Williams said.

The Red Cross’ mission is to provide food, shelter and clothing – not through collections, but funds.

“We help anyone affected by disaster,” Williams said. “We are mandated by Congress to provide this service, however we receive no government funding.”

The Red Cross has exercised their national disaster plan, meaning all money collected goes directly to the national headquarters for use only on hurricane victims.

The local Red Cross chapter has been welcoming evacuees, who turn to workers to help them “start a paper trail.” Specifically, every effort has to be made to locate parents of children left orphans by the hurricane, Williams said.

Never before has the Red Cross given this kind of aid. The monetary collections were not this high – $240 million – after the tsunami or Sept. 11, 2001, Williams said.

Williams said their main goals are family identification and rebuilding. She also said although they are “all up in arms about a lot of things” with the response time, the Red Cross cannot lose sight of providing food, shelter and clothing.

“We specialize in disaster,” she said.