Hitting Too Close To Home
Posted by egehl on July 9, 2010
Sadly earlier this week the oil spill hit even closer to home. On Monday, reports came out that tar balls were found in Lake Ponchartrain, the body of water directly adjacent to New Orleans. It’s also the same lake that flooded thousands of homes after Hurricane Katrina because the levees breached. As the oil makes its way closer to New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana this ongoing catastrophe is becoming more dire and bigger by the day.
For New Orleans and surrounding areas, having the oil reach our shores is a sucker punch after being through enough change and turmoil over the past 5 years. Louisiana communities are still reeling from the 2005 and 2008 hurricanes that ravaged our communities, culture, way of life, jobs, homes, and businesses. This oil spill has been like throwing salt on a wound that’s barely healing. And many are saying the damage will be worse than Katrina.
I think many of us feel almost desensitized to yet another catastrophe and the inevitable social, economic, environmental and health repercussions. However while there will be many outcomes due to the spill one in particular that is very troubling is the mounting toll on mental health.
Already we are seeing a rise in mental health related problems among people and children along the Gulf Coast, and it’s only the beginning. Undoubtedly this latest disaster will rip apart the fragile fabric of our communities, as families feel the impact through division, frustration and helplessness.
Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals wants BP to pay 10 million dollars for mental health services such as outreach and counseling for people impacted by the spill. BP says it’s reviewing the request to offer mental health services however unfortunately as of right now they are unwilling to pay for it. If they decide not to pay for these services, there should be an outcry because mental health should not be ignored.
As the spill rages on anger, anxiety and uncertainty among families and communities continues to mount and will eventually manifest into addiction, divorce, depression, bitterness, friction within the community, and in the worst case scenario, suicide. Unfortunately already we have seen how the spill has brought people to the brink when an Alabama fisherman hired by BP to help clean Gulf waterways committed suicide on board one of his own boats.
People are facing overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and a permanent dislocation from a lifestyle they love. There is so much confusion and conflicting reports about what’s safe and where people should go for help. And many feel like they have no place to turn to get reliable information.
A colleague of mine has been speaking with community leaders from Alaska who experienced the Exxon Valdez firsthand. Their stories and accounts are deeply worrisome and have given me chills.
They say that Alaskans are still struggling over 20 years later, and the mental health challenges felt by families in and around Prince William Sound has been enormous. They have relayed how “social capital” and community trust broke down in hard-hit Cordova, Alaska, as people isolated themselves, grew depressed and watched relationships fall apart. If the mental health toll was bad and ongoing in Alaska, I can’t imagine what it will be here with a disaster 20 times its size.
Economically Louisiana engages in an odd, too close for comfort dance between the oil and gas and seafood industries. My state prides itself as a place that produces oil and seafood, no matter how strange these bed fellows are. And it’s not uncommon for one family to have members that are fishermen and oil rig workers. Therefore families will be torn apart as they are pitted against each other for jobs and the fight over which industry should be more protected.
Louisiana has been impacted by the two worst man-made disasters in our nation’s history. And that has a different mental impact on people than natural disasters. A therapeutic community emerges after a natural disaster after people quite blaming Mother Nature and God for what’s happened. However in cases of “technological disasters” like the levees breaching after Katrina and this oil spill, where steps like rescue, recovery and rehabilitation remain elusive and blame comes easy, it’s a different and longer healing process.
Fortunately because the state went through Katrina not long ago, we have community resources, nonprofit services, assistance agencies and trained professionals in place to deal with post-disaster therapy. However it’s not enough.
The resources and professionals that will be needed to deal with the thousands of people suffering in silence will far outweigh what BP is most likely willing to pay for, and the capacity of what organizations can offer. Thus far Catholic Charities is overseeing much of the direct assistance and case management services associated with the spill however what they can do will be a drop in the bucket unless we can get numerous organizations involved and on board. But that can’t happen without funding and right now the federal and state governments won’t fund this work unless BP is willing to reimburse them.
I am worried that my fellow citizens are on the brink. They have dealt with 4 hurricanes and now their way of life is being turned upside down, what more can they take?
However what gives me hope is the amazing people I have met over the past three years who through thick and thin continue to love their homes and communities, culture and way of life and will do anything to rebuild and protect it. Louisiana is worth preserving and fighting for because there’s no other place like it, and people here know that. There are few people as strong and resilient as Louisianans and I know with the right help they can get through this latest hurdle.