May 29, 2011 12:54 PM by Chris Welty
TUNICA, Miss. (AP) - The aftermath of a disaster like the floods
that submerged parts of Mississippi or the tornadoes that have
wiped out towns in the Midwest and Southeast can leave victims with
depression and other ailments. Although the wait was agonizing as
floodwaters rose, experts say the extra time makes a difference in
the long run.
The Mississippi River flooding has been a slow-motion disaster
as the water made a monthlong trek from the Midwest to the Deep
South. Most had plenty of warning that their homes could wind up
under water. That hasn't made it any easier for folks impatiently
waiting to get back and look at the damage.
"I'm about to go nuts," said Charlie Barringer, 71, from an
apartment 26 miles from his home in Tunica's Cutoff community.
"I'm an outdoorsman. Sitting in a room looking out the damn window
across a field, that ain't my life."
Experts said they didn't know of any work done to study the
mental health implications based on how long people know a disaster
is coming, though there are bodies of work on the impact that
About one-third of the people who endure disasters on the scale
of the river flooding or the tornadoes can suffer anxiety,
depression or other mental ailments for up to a year or two, said
David Abramson, director of research at the Columbia center.
Ailments lasting longer are rare, he said.
The Mississippi flooding began May 2, when officials blew up
part of a levee in Missouri to protect a town in Illinois. As high
water rolled downriver to the Deep South, they were diverted
through floodgates into the Atchafalaya Basin, prompting hundreds
to evacuate. On Monday, the river's crest is expected to reach
Morgan City, La., where the flood waters empty into the Gulf of
The extra lead time many victims in that area have had could
reduce stress in the end, said Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia
University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness.
If you can get yourself and your family out safely with
important papers and even emotionally important keepsakes, "you
can restart your life," he said.
And, because injury and bereavement are major causes of
psychological distress, warnings "are indirectly probably our
greatest mental health intervention" by getting people out of
harm's way, said Fran Norris, director and principal investigator
of the National Center for Disaster Mental Health Research.
Even the warning 24 minutes before the tornado hit in Joplin,
Mo., killing 132, was substantial, Abramson said.
"In Israel, the warning systems for incoming missile attacks
are 15 seconds," he said.
The problem, typically, is getting people to pay attention to
"It's kind of the opposite of the popular myth that if you warn
people of disaster they'll panic," said Dennis Mileti, professor
emeritus at the University of Colorado's Natural Hazards Center in
Boulder. "The problem is the opposite - getting them off the
Photographs and video of earlier spring floods probably made it
easier to convince people farther downriver to protect their
property and leave, he said. The psychologically taxing piece as
people return from the disaster will be coping with all the
questions: Where will we live? Where will the children go to
Diane Austin, 47, and her parents, aunt and uncle all got safely
away from their homes in the Cutoff community, but they haven't
been able to go back and survey the damage.
"I'm concerned about what I'll find. I'm more concerned about
if they'll let us back," Austin said.
It may not be until sometime this week, and those who have to
rebuild will have to meet new FEMA regulations, said Larry Liddell,
spokesman for the Tunica County Emergency Management Agency.
And "with all the rules and regulations, you have to be a
millionaire to get everything back up to code," Austin said.
Over in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Flora and Michael Thomas' home was
devastated by the twister that hit April 27. They are unable to get
FEMA money for temporary housing and are living in a house without
electricity and missing part of its roof. A blanket covers a living
room window blown out by flying debris.
The days keep getting hotter, and Thomas said her family's
situation isn't getting any better. Insurance papers spread out in
front of her on an ottoman in a dark den, she wrung her hands,
fretting about the dusty air, probably including asbestos from
ripped-up shingles. The worry is overwhelming, as Flora Thomas
wonders when the insurance claim will be paid, when construction
crews can fix her home, when life can get
"It can't be good for you breathing all this stuff," she said
Tuesday, worry in her voice. "My voice is deeper, my throat is
Life is just stressful these days, said Thomas. Who knows when
the insurance company will pay their claim; when a construction
crew will begin fixing their home; when life will get back to
"I don't want to be here, but we don't have a choice," said