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Katrina, Race & Mental Health

It’s been five months since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, devastating that region and displacing thousands of people. Since that time, six to eight thousand evacuees, mostly from New Orleans, have come to Central Texas.

On November 14th, KLRU convened a Town Hall Meeting to examine our own response to the crisis. There, Austin charities, state agencies and evacuees joined to assess our progress, learn from our pitfalls and to discuss long-term needs.

Of all of the issues raised in our studios, the mental health of evacuees emerged as a primary concern.

A new CDC report underscores that concern, estimating that 50% of adult evacuees may need access to mental health services. Austin Travis County Mental Health Mental Retardation Center puts such patients in two categories: those with pre-existing conditions and those likely to develop symptoms in the wake of Katrina. Dr. Jim Van Norman of Austin Travis County MHMR elaborates: “there are some folks that just need a chance to talk. And some other people who are going to start developing a full blown psychiatric illness. Either post-traumatic stress disorder, or major depression because of this just ongoing potentially inescapable stress.”

Van Norman also points to a cultural stigma surrounding mental health. “To speak openly about psychiatric illness in yourself or in your family in the African American community is extraordinarily difficult. And so that makes the ability, the willingness to go seek services that much harder.”

Indeed, one of the conclusions of our Town Hall Meeting was the need to bridge a cultural and racial divide between the predominantly African American Katrina survivors and the predominantly white social service providers. That same divide was recognized early in the crisis by some city leaders, who called upon Austin’s black churches to be involved in the outreach.

Some credit those churches with helping an astounding number of evacuees. Rev. Ivie Rich elaborates: “we have churches in East Austin with congregations of less than fifty who are supporting families. We have people who did not go through the Convention Center. Better than 2,000 if you number those who are being helped by black churches.”

One of those churches was – and is— Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church. Katrina Survivor Rosemary Hunter says the church has welcomed her family with open arms. “It’s just a group of people who share not only their love, but their concern… for the evacuees from Katrina. They have really been God’s gift of love to us.”

Pastor Erroll Sweat of Greater Mount Zion says his church’s outreach has nothing to do with race, however. “When someone is hurting, who cares what color they are? I mean, we’re not doing this for the Katrina victims because they are African-Americans… We’re doing it simply because they are people who God care(s) about. And because God cares about them, we care about them.”

Before Katrina, two thirds of New Orleans was African American and the city was steeped in black culture.
Austin, however, is only 9 percent African American. There are few black-owned restaurants, clubs or even radio stations here.

One exception is Gene’s New Orleans Style Restaurant. Here, evacuees share their stories, receive information, and network. Owner Gene Tumbs explains the appeal: “they miss the home cooked food. The New Orleans flavor and that atmosphere of being at home they can find here. Plus they can come in here and… they run up on people that they know from New Orleans.”

Whether Austin’s Katrina population can adapt to a city so different from the Big Easy remains to be seen.

Katrina survivor Erness Wright-Irvin puts in all in perspective, “New Orleans culture is very different. It’s an oral culture. It’s also a relationship culture. I find Austin very entrepreneurial, very reward driven, very into a feeling that everyone is equal. It really calls for some in-depth conversations among a diverse group of people that includes people that share the same kind of values as those in New Orleans. To begin having what I call authentic dialogue about what’s important, and what stages are needed."

View a segment of the program:

Katrina Aftermath

What factors continue to impede some evacuees' full assimilation into our community?

<<view clip (modem)
<<view clip (high speed)



Related links:

Austin Travis County MHMR
Greater Mt. Zion Baptist Church
Gene's Restaurant

Produced by Jeffrey Salzgeber.


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