NEW ORLEANS – The Gulf of Mexico oil disaster feels far worse to shrimper Ricky Robin than Hurricane Katrina, even though he’s still haunted by memories of riding out the hurricane on his trawler and of his father’s suicide in the storm’s aftermath.
The relentless spill is bringing back feelings that are far too familiar to Robin and others still dealing with the physical and emotional toll wrought by Katrina five years ago.
“I can’t sleep at night. I find myself crying sometimes,” said Robin, of Violet, La., a blue-collar community on the southeastern edge of the New Orleans suburbs, along the highway that hugs the levee on the Mississippi River’s east bank nearly all the way to the Gulf.
Psychiatrists who treated people after Katrina and have held group sessions in oil spill-stricken areas say the symptoms showing up are much the same: Anger. Anxiety. Drinking. Depression. Suicidal thoughts.
Fishing families, the backbone of the coastal economy, are especially hard-pressed as the waters that make up their livelihood are sporadically closed because of fears the oil will taint fish, oysters and shrimp.
Oil field workers, whose salaries are among the best the region can offer, worry about their industry’s long-term future.
And there is still the rebuilding after Katrina, which in August 2005 devastated a swath from Louisiana to Alabama – almost as big as the area affected by the oil spill – killing more than 1,600 and forever changing the region’s relationship with the water.
Social services agencies have not seen a significant increase in people seeking help since the spill began, but that doesn’t mean the need isn’t there, said Jeffrey Bennett, executive director of the Gulf Coast Mental Health Center in Gulfport, Miss., whose state saw oil wash up on the mainland for the first time Sunday.
“Unfortunately, the people most affected, shrimpers and fishermen, are not people who traditionally seek mental health services,” Bennett said. “They’re kind of tough characters, and look at being depressed or not being able to handle their own problems as weakness.”
John Ziegler, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Mental Health, said no one had walked into counseling centers set up in fishing communities since the disaster. Then on Friday, two days after a popular charter captain committed suicide on his docked boat, five people came in saying they needed help because of the spill.
Mental health professionals say it is too early to have reliable data to understand the full severity of stress issues spawned by the spill.
However, their work so far indicates the problem is taking root, and the backdrop of Katrina means it is likely to get worse.
“This is a second round of major trauma for children and families still recovering from Katrina. It represents uncharted territory,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and a member of the National Commission on Children and Disasters who has worked with Katrina survivors.
Ziegler said counselors have gone out to marinas, docks and other places frequented by fishermen and others affected by the spill.
“They’ve had folks break down and weep,” he said. “They’ve had people share some of their deepest feelings about their future and how they’re feeling now that things seem imminent.”
The social and psychological toll on residents of the Gulf will last long after the oil is cleaned up, say veterans of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.
“Every day you’re dealing with this thing,” said John Calhoun, former mayor of Homer, Alaska, whose community was devastated. “If you’re not working on it, you’re worrying about it. Frankly, they sold a lot of alcohol during this time. I saw some of the toughest guys I know break down in tears because the stress had gotten to them.”