SLIDELL, La. (TBEN) – The 10 women gathered on yoga mats in a New Orleans suburb, the lights dimmed.
“I would like to invite you to close your eyes,” Instructor Stephanie Osborne said in a soothing voice from the front of the room. The only other sounds were the hum of the air conditioner and the distant sounds of children playing in a nearby field.
Over the next hour, the women focused on various mindfulness exercises designed to help them cope with the stresses of everyday life.
The six-week mindfulness program in Slidell, Louisiana, is the brainchild of Kentrell Jones, the executive director of East St. Tammany Habitat for Humanity, who was concerned about the health of her colleagues and others affected by Hurricane Ida. , which tore through this. region east of New Orleans last year.
The participants meet for an hour once a week for six weeks, starting with the inaugural session this fall and planning for future sessions next year.
Prospective participants, who had to live in the parish during Hurricane Ida, filled out a survey with questions such as whether they had struggled with lack of sleep, had trouble paying bills, or had to move since the hurricane. They don’t have to be clients of Habitat for Humanity’s housing programs, although some are.
Jones said the organization’s customers have struggled to be evicted from their homes as they tried to make repairs while dealing with insurance and went through another hurricane season in which the calendar is packed with anniversaries from previous storms and everyone has the television monitors for weather warnings.
A family she works with had to move to Mississippi in the wake of Ida while their tree-damaged home was being repaired. Just as the repairs were completed, the man died of a heart attack.
“You have people who are stressed,” she emphasized.
The program touches on a growing concern: the long-term stress that extreme weather events such as hurricanes can cause to the people who experience them. People who work in hurricane-affected areas often talk about the stress that the long rebuilding process can bring and the fear generated during hurricane season.
At the end of August, with the birthdays of Hurricanes Katrina and Ida approaching, the state of emergency in New Orleans social media feed preparedness reminded residents of something called the “anniversary effect,” which can trigger feelings of depression or PTSD. After Hurricane Ian hit Florida in September, two men in their 70s committed suicide after seeing their losses.
In Louisiana’s north coast, local mental health officials note that hurricanes are often followed by an increase in suicides in subsequent years. Nick Richard, head of the local branch of the National Alliance on Mental Health, said suicide rates after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 rose by 46% in 2007. Other events such as Hurricane Gustav in 2008 or the floods in 2016 have had similar rates. show jumps.
Research also suggests that extreme weather events such as hurricanes can have long-lasting health effects on survivors. A Tulane University study found that hospitalizations for heart attacks were three times higher after Katrina than before the storm.
Another study published earlier this year looked at death rates for provinces that experienced a tropical cyclone over a 30-year period, from 1988 to 2018. The study found increases for certain types of deaths, including cardiovascular and respiratory illness in the six months after landfall – suggesting that the death toll often tabulated in the first weeks after a storm may be undercounting.
The study’s lead author, Robbie Parks, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, said that while major hurricanes like Ian are getting a lot of attention this year, his research suggested that repeated attacks with weaker cyclones are also taking their toll. He is concerned about the full extent of events such as hurricanes, which go unrecorded. Counting the dead after a hurricane is an “incredible challenge,” he said.
“What if someone has a heart attack the week after a hurricane?” he said. “Then you enter subjective territory.”
One of the women participating in the inaugural meditation course is Louise Mace of Slidell. She had just opened her home decor store when Katrina wiped it out in 2005. Then, last year, the winds from Hurricane Ida and a tornado damaged her roof; she’s been battling with her insurance company ever since while living in a RV.
The stress has taken its toll on Mace’s health with her blood pressure jumping up and down. Her doctor recommended meditation and then she ran into Jones, who recruited her for the course. Mace said it has helped her learn techniques to deal with the stress and also to know that she is not alone.
“You think you’re dealing. You think you’re fine. You’re not. Listening to other people made it better,” Mace said.
The program is funded by the Northshore Community Foundation. Susan Bonnett, the foundation’s president and CEO, says the foundation would receive funding requests for traditional post-disaster needs, such as tarpaulins for damaged roofs, in the immediate aftermath of events such as hurricanes.
But the foundation also noted requests for funding for mental health months after the storm. At the same time, there was a shortage of mental health services in the region, so the organization looked for creative ways, such as Kentrell’s mindfulness proposal, to address the problems they knew would arise after events like Ida.
The mindfulness classes are designed to develop skills that participants can use to deal with any stress in their lives, whether it is weather-related or something else, such as a conflict with a family member.
Instructor Stephanie Osborne says people don’t always realize the mental strain extreme weather can cause.
Take, for example, the build-up to Hurricane Ian, when it was not yet clear that the storm would hit Florida and not Louisiana. Some women gathered outside the community hall after class and discussed whether to book a hotel room in Baton Rouge or get gas for the generator. All that buildup takes its toll, Osborne said.
“There’s a fear, a stress around it, especially for people who are struggling financially,” she said. And if people aren’t aware of how much fear they hold inside, it can affect things like their health or their job: “It’s starting to pour out in other ways.”
Follow Santana on Twitter @ruskygal.