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Hurricane Charley

Mental health joins casualties

Most psyches will heal in weeks. But some victims face a battle with depression and other problems that could span years.

Published August 20, 2004

[Times photos: Kinfay Moroti ]
Unable to sleep, Ronnie Mays rose before dawn Wednesday to begin salvaging belongings from his mobile home in Arcadia. "I'm mentally losing it," he said. "It's the starting over from scratch that's so damn hard. I feel like I'm in hell's kitchen."
photo   •Ricardo Herrera of Arcadia releases his emotions when water finally pours out of the pump he spent hours fixing Saturday. The devastation "makes me cry and go crazy at times," he said.

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PUNTA GORDA - Darlene Carpenter's eyes were half-closed with exhaustion as she pushed a cart of ice and food from a hurricane relief center to her car.

Last week, Carpenter, 55, and her family huddled in terror as Hurricane Charley stripped away part of their roof. Days later, the Charlotte Harbor woman was sticky with sweat, worried about her son, trying to contact her insurance company and looking for food and water.

"I'm jumpy. I'm shouting at everyone," she said.

It is normal in the days following a natural disaster for victims to feel a range of emotions, mental health experts agree. Irritability, night terrors, depression, hopelessness and anxiety: All are common. Counselors sent this week to the area hit by the hurricane say they already are seeing those problems. Their challenge is to keep them from taking root.

For most people, those symptoms will fade over the next couple of weeks. But serious psychological problems lingered for years after Hurricane Andrew in an alarming percentage of residents affected by that storm.

Even a year after Hurricane Andrew tore through South Florida in 1992, 17 percent of preschoolers in Homestead suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, often called shell shock or battle fatigue, according to a study.

The condition cannot be diagnosed for at least a month, but it is marked by flashbacks, emotional numbness, depression, sleeplessness or outbursts of anger. Nearly a third of those children's mothers also reported symptoms. Other studies found a spike in divorce rates and domestic violence.

In the wake of Hurricane Charley, the state Department of Children and Families this week sent 16 volunteer crisis counselors to staff FEMA sites. Many private mental health providers also have dispatched volunteers, though no one can say exactly how many counselors are there.

In coming days, DCF will evaluate the region's mental health needs and will apply to FEMA for a grant to fund services for the next 60 days to deal with the long-term psychological effects of the storm.

For now, much of the counselors' role is simply to provide a sympathetic ear. Letting people talk about their experiences, sometimes over and over, is often the best therapy.

At this early stage, many psychological issues can be resolved by providing food, water and shelter, said counselor Frances Wagar, 64, of Tallahassee.

"Where is the line between physical needs and emotional needs?" Wagar said. "For the moment there is no line."

On Wednesday, a distraught mother carried a sick baby into the relief shelter in Arcadia where Wagar works. Wagar gave her Pedialyte, diapers and formula "to make her feel more secure right now."

Elderly people and children are most vulnerable.

"I've seen people who are here alone and just need personal contact," she said. "I've listened to a lot of small children tell their story. These children just seem to need to tell somebody else about this amazingly frightening experience.

"I want to let people know they are not alone," Wagar said. "There are people who care."

The volunteers sent by DCF are not licensed psychotherapists or medical doctors and cannot prescribe drugs. The agency is, however, working to replenish drug supplies to community health clinics that serve patients with pre-existing mental health problems.

So far, the Charlotte Community Mental Health Center has dealt primarily with its usual clients, many of whom lost their medication in the storm.

"Yesterday, I came here and a woman was crying because we weren't open yet, and she didn't have any meds," said Jay Glynn, the center's assistant director. "For people who are not so stable, to go through a disaster is going to be rough."

It can be just as trying for residents whose mental health was not in question.

In worst-hit Charlotte County, residents, often jobless, homeless, hot and exhausted, are coming to terms with the enormity of the damage. In the months ahead, they will deal with insurance companies and sometimes less-than-scrupulous contractors.

It is, in short, a perfect recipe for stress, said Betty Hearn Morrow, a sociologist and professor emeritus at the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University.

"It's not so much the disaster as the recovery," Morrow said. "It's a long, difficult process."

That realization is beginning to sink in.

Dawn Boldovici didn't get too much damage to her house. But the 69-year-old Punta Gorda resident lacks electricity, water and phone service, and the strain is starting to get to her.

"The first couple of days it wasn't so bad, but now that I'm hearing it might take five weeks, eight weeks, to get power, that's depressing," she said. "You don't have anything to look forward to."

While most people will get better over time, problems may linger for years in about 10 to 20 percent of the thousands affected by the hurricane, said Dr. Alan Delamater, professor of pediatrics and psychology at the University of Miami.

Chuck Hamby has seen the stress levels rise this week. He's a spokesman for Verizon Wireless, which has set up tents for people to make free cell phone calls to insurance agents and loved ones.

"Their emotional state is very fragile," Hamby said. "It's almost like combat stress. They are moving robotically. They have a look of shock on their faces. I've literally watched the strength leave their legs and they sit down and cry."

A year after Hurricane Andrew, Morrow, the sociologist, was among a team of researchers who went door to door to check on lingering emotional effects from the storm. Almost everywhere, they found siblings and spouses fighting more, as well as dramatic increases in domestic violence and divorce.

"I don't think it creates these things for the first time," Morrow said. "But if there are tendencies for not dealing well with pressure or a tendency for violence, this just brings it out."

As someone who lived through Andrew, retired teacher Janis Nagengast, 56, of Homestead has been glued to her TV this week, watching the victims' faces.

"It's difficult to even watch the news," she said. "I cry because I know how they feel and what they are facing."

Nagengast remembers moving from room to room as the winds tore away pieces of the roof. Her family's 32-foot boat ended up in the kitchen. They lost almost everything.

A dozen years later, Andrew still haunts her, robbing her of sleep and giving her the fear the storm will return.

"It leaves lingering, forever wounds," she said.

Times staff writer Dan DeWitt contributed to this report.

[Last modified August 20, 2004, 01:47:31]

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