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Hurricane PTSD: Dealing with The Complex Impacts of Katrina Almost Two Decades Later

I see the bad moon a-risin’
I see trouble on the way
I see earthquakes and lightnin’
I see bad times today

Don’t go around tonight
Well it’s bound to take your life
There’s a bad moon on the rise

I hear hurricanes a-blowin’ 
I know the end is comin’ soon 
I fear rivers over flowin’ 
I hear the voice of rage and ruin

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s song Bad Moon Rising, released in 1969, is a classic hit. While CCR frontman John Fogerty said the apocalyptic climate conditions described in the song are a metaphor for the tumultuous times in which it was written, the lyrics still paint a picture of what survivors saddled with hurricane PTSD often envision.

It’s been almost two decades since Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, but for many residents, it’s a daily struggle trying to deal with the storm’s long-term impact. It’s especially difficult for residents whenever a new “area of disturbance” is mentioned on a weather report.

As we’ve seen with more recent Hurricanes Harvey, Laura, and Ida, traumatizing thoughts and feelings from the past can quickly manifest into the present, and often do multiple times over the years. Lingering post-Katrina PTSD can play a major role today and in the future, so it’s important to be on the lookout for common signs highlighting the struggle.

Hurricane Katrina was a long time ago but we still hear how survivors are having difficulties. Why can’t they just “move on” like everyone else?

Overall, our society has a belief that the way to handle emotional distress associated with anxiety, fear, and panic is to either avoid whatever they have determined to be the cause or to distract themselves with other behaviors, like work, reading, or video games. The fact is that this belief has not succeeded in making the distress go away. “Out of sight out of mind” is a false belief.

Research conducted through Purdue University within the first year following Hurricane Katrina highlighted that most people who lived in the identified evacuation areas met the criteria for PTSD. So, this means if you delayed efforts toward intentionally healing from your Katrina event, your hurricane PTSD may have developed signs of Complex PTSD.

What is Complex PTSD?

Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is a collection of symptoms associated with experiencing long-term trauma. The symptoms show up in our behaviors, emotions, thoughts, and interpersonal actions, as well as impacting our sleep. Sleep distress typically motivates people to go to their PCP who may prescribe a sleep aid. That will not correctly address the concern.

Each passing hurricane season can be especially difficult for residents who survived Hurricane Katrina whenever a new "area of disturbance" is mentioned on a weather report.
Each passing hurricane season can be especially difficult for residents who survived Hurricane Katrina whenever a new “area of disturbance” is mentioned on a weather report. Image by National Hurricane Center – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

What are signs someone may be struggling with the emotional impacts of Hurricane Katrina?

The main behavioral signs of continual struggle include:

  1. Avoid watching the weather
  2. Avoid talking about hurricane season
  3. Avoid preparing for hurricane season
  4. Isolate from others when distressed
  5. Being hyper-aroused
  6. Sleeplessness

This is true even if you find yourself scrolling through images of the disaster or watching Hurricane Katrina’s anniversary footage, which may very well re-traumatize you.

The main emotional signs of continual struggle include:

  1. Sudden outbursts
  2. Irritability
  3. Impatience
  4. Anxiousness or panic
  5. Hopelessness
  6. Numbness
  7. Emotional dysregulation

The main cognitive signs of continual struggle include:

  1. Flashbacks
  2. Nightmares
  3. Hypervigilance
  4. Fantasizing or planning extended trips to avoid hurricane season
How To Survive Hurricane Season Anxiety - New Orleans Hurricane Katrina.jpg
Survivors who developed hurricane PTSD and delayed efforts toward intentionally healing from Katrina may have developed signs of Complex PTSD. Image by David Mark from Pixabay.

How can we help our friends and family who are really struggling with hurricane PTSD?

It is difficult to be with someone when they show signs of PTSD, much less Complex PTSD. So, first and foremost, be kind and patient with yourself before and after you are there for your friend. Only help when you have “put your own mask on first,” like we’re instructed on an airplane.

The ways to support our struggling friends are to:

  1. Actively listen with the intent of curiosity, no judgment, and no fixing
  2. Validate their experience without affirming the hopelessness
  3. Be present with them in the current moment
  4. Stay connected and engaged with them by acknowledging what they are saying
  5. Be as caring and patient as you are able
  6. Acknowledge their strengths and successes thus far through each previous season
  7. Encourage preparation for the next event, including thunderstorms
  8. Guide them to identify a specific goal, like preparing an evacuation route
  9. Encourage seeking professional help

What are the best treatment options if you have continued to struggle with hurricane season?

Accessing mental health services is of the utmost importance. Complex PTSD sets the stage for negatively impacting our global world views which have been correlated with addiction, depression, and anxiety disorders.

Identify and quickly schedule an appointment with a professional mental health provider who is certified in:

  1. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy),
  2. CPT (Cognitive Processing Therapy), and/or
  3. Psycho-hypnosis.

These are the best treatment options for Complex PTSD. To help you identify someone, call your insurance customer service number or speak with your primary care provider today.

What else should you know about hurricane PTSD and complex PTSD?

Watch family and marriage therapist Susan Harrington, founder of Maison Vie, discuss the signs of unresolved mental health issues that may still linger almost two decades after Hurricane Katrina and what to do about it. You can also contact Maison Vie to see how Susan can help guide you through counseling sessions.