FEMA trailer parks seem to be the backdrop for growing mental health problems among Gulf Coast residents ravaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. That is where suicide attempts are 79 times the national average.
More than two years after the storm devastated the region, survivors continue to feel the pain, thanks in part to anxiety created by the sluggish recovery process.
The mental wear and tear of being homeless and without prospects is enough to drive the sanest person mad – let alone victims traumatized by the nation's worst and most expensive natural disaster in 70 years.
So, it should come as no surprise that the incidence of mental illness among these survivors has actually increased since 2005. Most cases of mental illness caused by a traumatic event are resolved within two years of a traumatic event.
Last month, Dr. Ron Kessler of Harvard Medical School testified before a key congressional panel that one year after the disaster, he observed extraordinary resilience and optimism among the nearly 1,100 Katrina survivors he surveyed. Since then, that sense of hope has turned into resignation and despondency. According to Kessler's study, the estimated incidence of serious mental illness rose to 14 percent among residents of storm-town regions of the Gulf Coast, up from nearly 11 percent since the disaster struck. Mood and anxiety disorders increased by a comparable rate to 33 percent and post-traumatic stress rose 50 percent. In New Orleans proper, rates of all types of mental disorders stayed steady.
"The numbers tell the story of the federal government's continuing failures of Hurricane Katrina survivors," states a recent Seattle Post-Intelligencer op-ed. "Could there be any clearer sign that we are failing a whole region of this country in a time of need?"
To add to Katrina victims' anxiety levels, efforts in the U.S. Senate to push through legislation designed to bring relief, are facing opposition from a member of the Louisiana congressional delegation who is splitting hairs over public housing provisions. Immediately after Katrina hit, the National Urban League issued a plan of action for the Gulf Coast known as "The Katrina Bill of Rights." Of these rights, the "Right to Return" stands as a cornerstone. We called upon Congress to "... guarantee to every evacuee and every resident the right to return to their home," because "every family should have the chance to come back to their hometown or neighborhood if they so choose."
Introduced last June by Sens. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. and Mary Landrieu, D-La., the Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Act, proposes important and needed steps forward as well resources to help thousands of lower-income families who need safe and affordable housing — whether as renters or homeowners – to reclaim their lives.
It is currently awaiting Senate Banking Committee action. A comparable bill passed the House in March by a commanding margin. In the words of the Post-Intelligencer editorial, "it would be easy to lay all of this on the Bush administration, especially since it has been trying to rewrite the Katrina history to escape most blame."
But Congress is equally responsible.
The U.S. Senate must resist infighting and quibbling over the details so Gulf Coast residents can reclaim their previous lives and put the tragedy behind them. I urge our nation's senators to act swiftly on this important issue.
Marc Morial is the president of the National Urban League.