Hurricane Diaspora

A half year after unprecedented disaster, where are the citizens of the Gulf Coast—and what do they need?

After the arrival of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Gulf Coast evacuees came to Texas by the busload. Every day for two weeks, I drove hundreds of miles to various shelters, asking what was needed to house the homeless, feed the hungry, and cure the sick. As a regional radio reporter, I’d never worked harder, and I’d never been made so distraught by the story I covered. I spoke to strangers, who’d lost everything, just long enough to get a quick sound bite for my deadline. I frantically searched for friends from New Orleans, including my college roommate and her husband. I welcomed neighbors from the Gulf Coast as they arrived in Dallas.

One neighbor’s displaced mother stopped chemo until she could enroll in a new insurance program. By the time treatment resumed, her cancer had metastasized to her brain. The majority of HIV patients from New Orleans skipped some treatment to keep friends, family, landlords, and employers from knowing their diagnosis. Many patients are now drug resistant or have full-blown AIDS.

More than 50 percent of evacuees are suffering from mental illness, especially depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s two to three times the percentage affected by the Oklahoma City bombing or 9/11. And when they are put on hold or lost in voicemail, it exacerbates their already understandable frustration, sometimes leading to drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, or petty crime.

Public medical and mental health care was already underfunded in Texas, but now the social service providers are more overburdened. While individuals have donated generously, lawmakers have yet to consider comprehensive national health care.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2006
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