It’s not reported on the news so much any more. People know the folks along the Gulf Coast are still rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, but other headlines have replaced the ones that repulsed the world two years ago.

And that’s the danger. Without consistent news coverage, without persistent pressure on the government, without concerned compassion from the church, the people in New Orleans and other communities will continue to struggle — and continue to die.

The uncounted casualties — the statistics that are never compiled — are the ones attributed to the psychological damage after a catastrophe. They are the wounds that often go unnoticed. They show up in broken lives, broken families and premature death from suicide.

A recent Washington Post story reports mental health problems are spiking in New Orleans. Depression is battering city residents as hard as the waves from Katrina. And no one can say when these waves will stop.

A Harvard Medical School study shows self-reported signs of mental illness increased to 14 percent this summer, more than two times the pre-storm amount of 6 percent. People who reported suicidal thoughts rose from 3 percent to 8 percent in the past 15 months.

The significance of the numbers is many of these people reported no psychological problems before the storm.

People lost their homes, their jobs, their entire neighborhoods. And the rebuilding is going painfully slow, somewhat due to the enormity of the task and somewhat due to the snail’s pace at which government moves.

In each of the three national disaster scenes I have been to, I was shaken to my core by the sights, sounds, smells and enormity of chaos that my brain was incapable of processing. I was in each scene for only a few days. I can’t imagine having to get up in that place, day after day, with the fear of the traumatic past pushed out only by the fear of the uncertain future.

When I was in Oklahoma the first time five months after the May 1999 twisters went through, everybody on work teams in that area took hope in the bathroom. That was all that was left of a brick home that had stood in the path of the F-5 twister. The elderly man who lived there had survived by taking shelter in that tiny sanctuary; it sat on a rise and was visible for several yards in all directions.

I was back there fewer than eight months later and learned the man had committed suicide. He lived alone and had lost all his possessions. When I heard how he had died after the miraculous way he was spared from the twister, I was angry and felt like I had been punched in the gut.

How could he? That was before my own bout of depression. Now I know. Now I understand.

So much of human identity and security is found in stuff and routines. People living along the Gulf Coast have had all that stripped from them.

One woman told the Post that she often can’t find an open coin-operated laundry; she has no idea when her church will re-open.

By now, I had hoped I would be able to go on a work trip to the Gulf Coast to do my part in the rebuilding. That hasn’t happened and won’t for the foreseeable future due to my work schedule.

However, I am finally getting a paycheck again. I’m going to do myself what I’m getting ready to ask you to do — write a check to a favorite charity and designate it for Hurricane Katrina victims.

If you belong to a Christian denomination, your church has an agency to offer disaster relief.

If you don’t belong to a church, consider giving to the Red Cross or Salvation Army, two organizations that are reputable in providing disaster relief. If you can give of yourself, find somebody going south to help and join the outfit. If you can’t go or can’t pay, pray that somebody else will be moved to action in your place.

The victims of Hurricane Katrina are Americans. The victims could have been us. It’s going to take at least 10 years to get this area back to a semblance of what it was before the storm. People are still dying.

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail:

© 2007 by Nerissa Young

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