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Disconnected families coping with fear, stress

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"We couldn’t reach her, so we didn’t how she was," says Charlebois, who lives in Alberta, Canada. "We were really panicking."

On Tuesday evening, with barely any battery power remaining in her cell phone, McCaughan was finally able to reach her family to say she was safe and being evacuated to Lafayette, La.

"It was a nightmare. We were feeling so helpless," she says. "I just couldn't take it anymore."

In the wake of the hurricane disaster which wiped out much of the U.S. Gulf Coast, flooding Louisiana and Mississippi and displacing tens of thousands of people, communication has been virtually non-existent. Phone lines are down and very few cell phones are operating.

The hurricane has left thousands of families desperate for contact.

In response, Web sites have begun helping loved ones find each other. MSNBC has launched "Reconnect," a program to locate missing relatives and friends. TV programs show images of people telling their families and friends that they've escaped harm.

Images of violence and desperation are causing even more stress for thousands of other family members who are frantically trying to locate their loved ones. Many may be reunited, but for the people caught in the hurricane and their families far away, the emotional after-effects may be felt for years, say mental health experts.

"Most people are just in shock whether they're experiencing it themselves or their loved ones are," says therapist Jacquelyn Ferguson. "It's just because everything is so beyond their control."

Don't expect the worst

But just because a loved one hasn't been heard from, don’t expect the worst, says Ferguson. They may be all right.

"What we hope is that people can keep from building up terrible scenarios in their heads," says Ferguson, who worked with victims of Hurricane Charley which struck the Florida coast last year. "What you think determines how you feel emotionally."

"Control your thinking and keep as calm as possible," she advises.

Beyond the agony of families trying to reconnect, the violence that emerged after Katrina will worsen the psychological debris left by the natural disaster itself, health experts warn. Scarce food and water has led to looting and arson fires.

The struggle to stay alive is likely to trigger a rash of stress-related issues that can lead to depression and anxiety, especially among vulnerable children, experts said.

That stress can add to the problems of coping with the aftermath of the storm itself. Being tired, hungry and hot also makes the aftermath hard to deal with, experts say.

“When the the resources run out they tend to have more difficulty in coping,” said Gerard Jacobs, a psychologist and head of the University of South Dakota’s Disaster Mental Health Institute.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is often associated with wartime combat, but it can strike after very stressful events such as natural disasters. People who survive are left shaken and can have flashbacks and nightmares.

Signs of mental trouble may not show up for weeks or even months, but reports already show survivors growing frustrated and angry.

Stress and anxiety can affect other diseases and trigger behavioral changes such as drug use, smoking and lethargy, according to federal health officials.

As the death toll mounts, survivors must also cope with the sight of dead bodies and other gruesome images. Experts say survivors, even those whose homes were largely unaffected, may be blocking out grief for now but that the loss will eventually hit them.

“I think that we will find people adjusting to the experience really for the rest of their lives,” Jacobs says.