BATON ROUGE – When Hurricane Katrina leveled New Orleans, thousands of people left behind their ruined homes and took refuge here. They found new jobs and rebuilt their homes. Slowly, things started to feel normal again.
But then a nameless storm brought unprecedented flooding to Baton Rouge and a wide swath of southern Louisiana over the last week. Countless Katrina survivors have been left, for a second time, with nothing.
“Everything was going good,” said Trinice Rose, a nurse who escaped her home near Baton Rouge on foot as the floodwater rose – 11 years to the month after her home in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward was drowned under more than nine feet of water. “Now, again, we’re back where we started.”
Two displacements, two traumas. A loss that has left many feeling tired, battered and hopeless. And even as many face unclear futures and questions about where they will live, experts say they are also concerned about the mental health consequences for Katrina survivors now weathering this new loss.
The historic flooding that is battering Louisiana has left at least 13 dead, state officials said. Another 30,000 people have been rescued and 40,000 homes have been damaged.
An unknown number of people remain missing nearly a week after the rain began to fall. Scores of firefighters, police officers and other first responders fanned out across the region this week to begin a massive search-and-rescue mission that authorities said could last for up to two weeks.
“Nobody has been forgotten,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, D, said at a briefing this week. “We understand there are a lot of people who are suffering.”
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will visit Louisiana on Thursday to review the response and address reporters, a spokeswoman for the department said.
Many in the flooded area and across the country have questioned why this devastation – which the American Red Cross called the country’s worst natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy in 2012 – has not received more attention from national media outlets, politicians and government officials.
In an editorial published Wednesday night, the Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge called on President Barack Obama – who is vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts — to visit the shaken region.
“We’ve seen this story before in Louisiana, and we don’t deserve a sequel,” the editorial stated. “In 2005, a fly-over by a vacationing President George W. Bush became a symbol of official neglect for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The current president was among those making political hay out of Bush’s aloofness. . . . It’s past time for the president to pay a personal visit, showing his solidarity with suffering Americans.”
Obama declared the flooding a major disaster on Sunday, opening up federal funding for 20 parishes, and the White House said he has been receiving regular updates since this weekend.
On Wednesday, Obama got an update from W. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), who had visited Baton Rouge a day earlier and assured residents that despite “what it may be getting in the national coverage, we know this has been a significant impact here in Louisiana.” The White House said that 70,000 people had registered for FEMA assistance.
The flooding in Louisiana has closed government offices, schools, businesses and roadways, with uncertainty in some areas about when things will reopen. Authorities are going house to house checking to make sure that every resident is accounted for and that no one died inside their homes since more than two feet of water begin falling Thursday night.
This search is a hot, grim task full of putrid smells of decay inside damp homes. Veterans of storm searches speak of having acquired “nose blindness.”
The painstaking effort is being coordinated by the office of H. “Butch” Browning, the state fire marshal. He estimates that teams will search some 30,000 homes and businesses in at least five parishes.
“We are really challenged in situations like this, where you have such widespread damage,” Browning said.
But he said he anticipated finding far fewer bodies than during a similar effort after Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that caused an estimated 1,500 deaths. During Katrina, people were facing not only rising water but also high winds and a tidal surge. “We won’t see that type of death toll at all,” he said.
Still, the specter of Katrina was inescapable as the water rose in Baton Rouge this week.
“I was just thinking, ‘Not again,’ ” said Phonecia Howard, who lives in East Baton Rouge. “This cannot happen again.” Howard’s family fled their New Orleans home at 4 a.m. the day before Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. They headed to Baton Rouge, to safety.
All of the memories of that storm and its aftermath – ripping out sheet rock, stepping over warped hardwood floors, having to replace all their possessions right down to the last measuring cup – raced through her mind as she waded into her yard this past weekend and stepped into a boat waiting to take her to safety.
“I was praying, just ask God to spare us one more time,” Howard said. Of the 260 houses in Howard’s subdivision, she says, hers is one of only 20 that did not flood.
Rose, the nurse, was working at the Orleans Parish Prison when forecasters said Katrina might make landfall in New Orleans. She had just buried her brother days before, and she was a single mother with a six-year-old son, but she was a nurse, so she sent her son with her parents to Baton Rouge while she worked for another six days.
She was able to get to her son and reunite with her then-boyfriend, Johnathan Rose. They settled in Baton Rouge, sharing a home with six other displaced families until they found their own place. Since then, they began careers in Baton Rouge, got married and had two boys of their own. Just this month, they were given custody of Trinice’s nephew.
On Friday, her 17-year-old son sent her photographs of the water creeping into their yard. She left work early to get her children, driving through rising water to reach them. They walked through waist-high water to get to dry ground.
“I want to get away from water, get away from low-lying areas,” said Jerry Savage, who lost both his home and his lawn-care business in Katrina, then rebuilt both in Baton Rouge only to lose them again. “I want to get out of here.”
Savage hasn’t been able to sleep in the emergency shelter where he’s staying: The storm hit three weeks after he had back surgery, and his pain medication was lost in the flood. “I just want to be comfortable, living in my house,” he said.
People facing this repeated trauma after enduring Katrina could be at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, experts said. “They are definitely a vulnerable population,” said Erich Conrad, a psychiatrist who serves as medical director for behavioral health at the University Medical Center in New Orleans.
Bill McDermott, a psychologist for the New Orleans Police Department, said that repeated traumas can shatter victims’ presumptions about how the world works, which can be deeply unsettling. They are left with a worldview, he said, “that involves no longer believing the same as I had in justice, in fairness, in that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. That’s a presumption that is shattered.”
Many Katrina survivors say that they have been heartened by the improved response to this disaster. They appreciate that communication systems didn’t fail completely as they did during Katrina, that there is enough food and water at emergency shelters and that rescuers came when they were called.
“There was no rescue in New Orleans. Here, they had their act together,” said Stephanie Polk, who was working as a teacher in New Orleans when Katrina hit. She, her husband and their extended family rebuilt in Gonzales, La., on what they thought was high ground. On Tuesday afternoon, they were evacuated by boat as the floodwater rose.
“It’s stressful,” Polk said. “You have to realize it’s just stuff.”
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Berman reported from Washington. Sarah Netter in Slidell, Louisiana, contributed to this report.
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