Joachim Singelmann and Mark Schafer
In late summer of 2005, hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf states within a four-week period. Although Katrina wrecked the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida, Louisiana was the only state that fell victim to both hurricanes. While Rita was a less severe hurricane than Katrina, it caused further distress to those evacuees from Katrina who had taken refuge in the areas that were in the path of Rita and now had to find new safe shelters.
The vast destruction brought on by the two hurricanes made rebuilding a daunting task. The failure of government at all levels – from national to local – created a situation where many evacuees remained in FEMA trailer parks 18 months after the disaster. Many of these parks were isolated, without walking access to grocery stores, and often with no ready access to public transportation. Living more than a year in trailer parks, sometimes after having moved from shelter to shelter before the parks, took its toll on the hurricane evacuees, both physical and psychological.
The purpose of this study was to analyze the level and determinants of depressive symptoms and stress experienced by persons who remained in trailer parks and to identify the factors that improve or deteriorate emotional well-being. The objective of the project was to gain knowledge about the incidence of stressors contributing to the prevalence of depression in populations exposed to emergency situations such as hurricanes. Such knowledge could help reduce the incidence of such stressors and thereby improve the emotional well-being of evacuees in future disasters.
During February-April 2007, LSU AgCenter researchers conducted a survey among hurricane evacuees who lived in FEMA-managed and commercial trailer parks in four Louisiana communities and their surrounding areas: Lake Charles, Lafayette, Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The researchers conducted 80 interviews in each of the four survey sites. Depending on the size of the trailer parks, the interviews were completed in a single large trailer park, such as in Lake Charles, or in many small parks, such as in Lafayette. Slightly more interviews took place in commercial trailer parks than in FEMA-managed parks. The participation rate for the survey was 67 percent; the refusal rate among those answering the door was 26 percent.
Studies of depressive symptoms in the United States indicate about 4 percent to 10 percent of adults suffer from major depression in any given year. Data from various surveys for Louisiana also show depressive symptoms to be important. According to a 2002 survey of persons in six metropolitan areas in Louisiana, 16 percent of all respondents reported a level of depressive symptoms that qualify for an onset of clinical depression.
Socioeconomic status has a negative effect on levels of depression; respondents with the lowest incomes have much higher levels of depressive symptoms than the more affluent. Although not all respondents in our 2007 Louisiana FEMA trailer park survey were poor, their average level of depressive symptoms was significantly higher than the depression level of the poor in other LSU AgCenter studies.
Moreover, 58 percent of all FEMA trailer park respondents reported levels of depressive symptoms within the range of clinical depression. Those elevated levels of depression clearly show the toll that the hurricanes and the subsequent displacement have taken on the mental health of hurricane evacuees.
Previous research has identified a number of determinants for depressive symptoms. Key factors include (1) work status, (2) physical health, (3) education and socioeconomic status, (4) marital status and (5) race.
The researchers also explored whether the following hurricane-specific factors affected the emotional well-being of people who lived through the hurricanes and ended up in FEMA trailer parks: (1) years at residence before the hurricanes; (2) number of places lived since the hurricanes; (3) change in health status from before the hurricanes to present; (4) duration of residence in the FEMA trailer park; (5) wanting to return to city of pre-hurricane residence; (6) sense of belonging in the trailer park because of old friends present; (7) involvement in the affairs of the trailer parks; and (8) feeling of trailer park safety.
The results showed that college education, full-time employment, maintaining pre-hurricane physical health and sense of belonging in the trailer park community all tended to reduce the level of depressive symptoms. Perceiving obstacles to getting involved in the trailer park community substantially increased depressive symptoms. The significant hurricane-specific determinants for emotional well-being – safety, sense of belonging, maintaining health and involvement in park activities – are all factors that can be addressed through policy. The findings suggest opportunities exist for special programs to intervene when disasters occur and evacuees must be housed in group settings.
The results of this project showed a level of mental distress among evacuees that is significantly higher than typically found among other vulnerable and fragile population groups, such as the poor or persons on public assistance. Almost 60 percent of all respondents reported levels of depressive symptoms that fall within the range of clinical depression.
The findings of this study of hurricane- specific determinants of emotional well-being have significance for social program intervention. While hurricanes cannot be avoided, and with it the evacuations from such hurricanes, specific programs could alleviate the stressor effects of such dislocation and thereby prevent substantial increases in levels of depressive symptoms.
Available health care is one of the factors that could reduce the deterioration of health during the dislocation, which, in turn, would prevent some increases in depression. Programs aimed at facilitating the evacuees’ sense of belonging to the new community as well as their involvement in it would also act as a buffer to the stress of dislocation and feeling of loss and help to prevent depressive symptoms from increasing.
(This article was published in the winter 2008 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)