When William Villavaso closes his eyes, the nightmare is waiting for him — the one about the 15 hours he spent in water slick with diesel fuel in New Orleans, a life jacket and a chunk of wood keeping him afloat until he was rescued.
Six months after losing his home and his possessions to Hurricane Katrina, the 49-year-old New Orleans native is now living in Chicago, where he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and wakes up from bad dreams in a cold sweat.
On a scale from 1 to 10 — 10 being well — Villavaso says that emotionally, “right now I’m probably a 2.”
“I hope to have normalcy again in my life,” says Villavaso, who is trying to battle his depression at group counseling. “I’m just hoping for that stability.”
As many as 500,000 Katrina evacuees around the country may need mental health counseling, according to the U.S. Substance and Mental Health Services Administration. And while Villavaso is getting help, the government says many others are not, and may not even know they need it.
Several states that took in evacuees are recognizing the problem, changing their focus from providing housing and jobs to offering counseling and emotional support.
In Illinois, about 20 counselors are tracking down approximately 7,000 evacuees, and officials are referring them to professionals.
“We know that there’s several stages of emotional crisis that people go through,” says Carol Adams, Illinois’ human services secretary. “Right now, people are in the stage when they realize things won’t work out quite how they thought.”
People like 46-year-old Reginald Lucien, who like Villavaso came to Chicago from New Orleans’ devastated Ninth Ward.
“When I first came to Chicago I thought it was easy to cope, I never questioned it,” he says. “As time goes along I come to the realization that this is where I’ll be for some time, it gets harder. I get anxious.”
Dr. Anthony Ng, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on Psychiatric Dimensions of Disasters says Katrina evacuees run the risk of such problems as depression, recurring nightmares and drug and alcohol abuse.
“When people are talking about post-traumatic stress disorder, they usually talk about something like a plane crash, but this is more complicated than usual,” Ng says. “What makes Katrina different is the scale of the disaster and the length of time people went through it.”
Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, breaching levees and submerging 80 percent of New Orleans. It killed more than 1,300 people, most of them in Louisiana, and caused over $200 billion in damage. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced from their homes.
At first, evacuees “had sort of a honeymoon phase, when the assets, the Red Cross and volunteers are rolling in,” says J.W. Holcomb, coordinator of mental health disaster response for the Illinois Division of Mental Health. “But just now they’re coming to grips with the fact that, ‘Hey, I’m no better than I was before. I’ll never get back my picture of Grandma or my high school yearbook. And I’m in a strange place.”’
To help evacuees handle the stress, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have given states more than $67 million, including a $19.2 million grant announced this month.
The grant will go toward local mental health programs for Illinois, Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri and Colorado. Texas — which received the largest share of the evacuees — will get most of the latest grant, about $12.1 million.
Almaz Oko, a Miami resident who came to Chicago after Hurricane Andrew destroyed her home in 1992, says Katrina’s victims face a long recovery. She says she still suffers from insomnia and flashbacks.
“You’ll be in the grocery store and you’ll bust out crying and you’re not sure why,” says Oko, who helped process Katrina evacuees in Chicago for the Red Cross. “I also went through a hoarding stage when I just wanted to buy, buy, buy. I guess I was trying to buy back what I lost, to fill the hole.”