The 2008 hurricane season proved to be the second most destructive on record, behind only 2005's historic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Many Gulf Coast communities were still recovering from the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina when Hurricanes Ike and Gustav made landfall over the summer. Community leaders, social workers and first responders once again were put to the test as millions of residents were ordered to evacuate. After the storms, news reports revealed more than 200 deaths were blamed on the two hurricanes. Tens of thousands of residents had lost their homes and damage estimates reached $54 billion. But there was good news to report, social work leaders pointed out. This time, getting help to the people who needed it had improved greatly since the lessons learned in 2005, they said.
The Texas resort community of Galveston Island was particularly hard hit when Hurricane Ike made landfall over the summer. Nearby Houston also was heavily damaged by high winds and extensive flooding.
NASW Texas Chapter Executive Director Vicki Hansen said a disaster response system coordinated by the state did a great job of getting help to the people who needed it the most.
"Our office in Austin turns into a disaster response center," she said. "We get a Web site up and going and set up a listserv of volunteers. We help provide volunteers all over the state.
"We were very involved, but there were some challenges as many government agencies were themselves flooded and we had a number of members who had to evacuate, while many others volunteered to help at evacuation centers," Hansen said.
She said the state has excellent emergency preparedness efforts in place since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and social workers are part of any recovery effort. "We have a volunteer database," she noted. This past hurricane season was different, however. Unlike the situation that developed from Hurricane Katrina - in which hundreds of thousands of Louisiana hurricane victims sought refuge in Texas - Hurricane Ike made storm victims of state residents, she said. Keeping track of many affected people can wear people thin, Hansen noted. When two major hurricane seasons strike in such a close proximity in time, the stress can prove overwhelming to the citizens and the people who are trying to help them.
"I am concerned about the numbing effect these disasters cause," said Hansen. "The overwhelming need for disaster response could be a job in itself. It's brought about a whole new element to our jobs as social workers. While feedback from members and clients are appreciative of our efforts, it's tapping our resources considerably."
Chapter leaders said making sure social workers also take care of themselves is key to avoiding disaster recovery burnout. It's a message that has been continually reinforced among social workers since Hurricane Katrina, said Louisiana Chapter Executive Director Carmen Weisner.
Newly constructed storm levies in New Orleans held up in the most recent hurricane season, but the state's lower section still suffered serious flooding and wind damage, Weisner said. "In many instances we experienced a re-victimization because we had gone through this before," she said. "But every time this happens, it brings up new victims."
Citizens in the southwestern portion of the state, such as Lake Charles and Cameron Parish, were most affected, Weisner said. Hurricane Gustav actually hit the state within days of the three-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, bringing back many old fears.
"We're storm weary, but that comes with living in this part of the country," Weisner said. Luckily, the chapter is based in the state's capital city of Baton Rouge, but even there, residents had to deal with last season's high winds and flooding.
"We've been engaged in recovery relief since 2005," including staging recovery drills and training on how to set up shelters and work with evacuees, Weisner said. Last year, the state was able to safely evacuate coastal residents to the north. While there was room for improvement in the evacuation process, social workers are needed most in the aftermath of the storms, she said.
While the good news is that social workers are not fleeing Louisiana during its recovery period, some demographics have changed. Weisner said that data shows that about 10 percent of the Louisiana's licensed social workers live out of state. "Our workforce capacity seems to be good and enrollment at some of our social work graduate schools has gone up while others have been consistent," she said.
Janice Sandefur, executive director of the Mississippi Chapter, said social workers and others who help hurricane victims were in much better shape to help this past hurricane season. "We were better prepared for evacuations, but, that being said, it was still difficult for people along the coast," she said. Mississippi suffered wind damage and flooding and several thousand residents lost their homes to the storms. Many of those who lost their homes were people already using Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers or cottages after losing their homes due to Hurricane Katrina. Repeated flooding is bad news for some FEMA housing members. If their area suffers repeated flooding, officials will not replace a unit on the same area, Sandefur explained. This is causing anxiety for those who have to rent land on more expensive higher ground, she said.
Like the other affected states, Mississippi officials have improved disaster response and recovery efforts. "We work with the Mississippi Department of Health," said Sandefur. "I think our ability to work together with state officials is better. They are willing to work with us - especially those social workers who live here." She said there is a program set up to unite emergency relief efforts along the coastal region, which took over a year to set up after Hurricane Katrina. "Getting information out to people was not nearly the nightmare that it was after Hurricane Katrina," she said.
"The hurricane season [June through November] is a frustrating time because you never know what's coming," Sandefur said.
NASW's national office in Washington, D.C., also helped with disaster recovery by participating in daily conference calls with the American Red Cross, Disaster Mental Health Services. The effort resulted in action plans to address mental health needs of disaster victims. NASW recruited clinical social work volunteers through NASW's chapter services and joined in brainstorming sessions to improve the mental health delivery systems with other organizations. NASW staff continues to work with the American Academy of Pediatrics and Partnership for Children Disaster Preparedness, to address policy and legislation in relation to child disaster preparedness with FEMA and other stakeholders.
A silver lining. Social work leaders said there are some positive results from the devastation caused by hurricanes in 2005 and 2008. For one thing, federal and state funding for mental health response to disasters and their aftermath has increased, they said. In fact, mental health treatment has become fundamentally accepted as a much-needed resource, Hansen said. "That's a big change," she noted. "There finally seems to be an understanding of how important it is to provide those services."
Weisner, from the Louisiana chapter, said that since Hurricane Katrina, storm victims are much more open to seeking and receiving help for their problems when they need it. "And our skill sets as social workers have gotten better," she said. "Survivors of the hurricanes have enabled us to hone our intervention models and the profession has added to its body of knowledge. We have methods to use that we know work best. You should be able to grow from these experiences and we are growing from it."
Sandefur, from the Mississippi chapter, agreed that storm victims appear more open to help from social workers. It's an important step in the right direction, she said, since damaged areas after Hurricane Katrina showed a significant increase in alcohol and drug abuse as well as domestic violence cases. "We've done a good job of getting the word out that if you need help, we're here," she said. "That is a positive thing that has occurred."
Preparing for the future
What can be done to help Gulf Coast communities deal with future natural disasters? Social workers are thinking about ways to better handle storms on the horizon.
"Texas [first-responders] have mastered the tactical response to these storms," said Hansen. However, there is room for improvement in post-disaster recovery efforts, she said. Federal rules can be very restrictive in recovery funding; it would be better for the federal government to provide block grants to states and allow state leaders to decide how best to use the funds in their recovery efforts, she said.
In Louisiana, disaster recovery has been going on for more than three years. New building codes designed to withstand severe hurricane conditions will hopefully make all the difference in keeping communities intact in the future, said Weisner. "We also need to bring more life skills training to families so they become familiar with what they need to do to be safe," she said. "We as social workers need to learn self-care and know when to recognize when family or co-workers are under too much stress to get them help.
"We're still in recovery mode in the lower part of the state and there are places that will rebuild and there are some that will not," Weisner said. "But, maybe that's a good decision. We are resilient and we have resolve. We'll come out on the other side of these storms and in the three years [since Hurricane Katrina], we are much wiser."