Children launch homemade sailboats as a resident wades through a flooded street to check on a neighbor's house after the remnants of Hurricane Ida passed through the area, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021
( David Goldman
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and we're glad you're here with us. Today, we're going to continue a conversation we began exactly one week ago. Last Thursday, as we started our show, I proposed that we reconsider our collective definition of disaster. What if we thought of weather events like floods, fires, and quakes not as disasters, but as shocks?
Somewhat unpredictable, these shocks focus our attention, and allow us to see the real disasters. Disasters that exist long before a storm gathers on the horizon. Since that conversation, our nation has absorbed multiple shocks. The Caldor fire forced thousands to evacuate the city of Lake Tahoe. Shock. Hurricane Ida came ashore in Louisiana and wiped out power to nearly one million people. Shock.
Then just last night, deadly tornadoes and flooding in New York City caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ida. Shock. In New Orleans, Hurricane Ida is only the most recent shock to communities trying to manage multiple long-term disasters. A 24% poverty rate. The nation's highest maternal mortality rate. A long history of racial inequality in housing, schools, and health.
During the past 18 months, New Orleans has suffered some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths. Just last month, Louisiana had its highest weekly total of COVID cases at any point in the pandemic. When shock after shock pummeled the community, the result is not just inconvenience or stress. The result is trauma. Not just for individuals, but for families, for schools, for neighborhoods.
Resilience after shock and disaster is possible, but only with the right tools. Debris can be cleared, but only if we organize crews to clean it. Electricity can be restored, but only with teams of experts working around the clock to get the lights on. Homes and businesses can be rebuilt, but only with resources and assistance. In the same way, trauma can be addressed, but only if we pay attention and intervene.
With me now is Dr. Denese Shervington, founder and CEO of the Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies, a national nonprofit health organization in New Orleans. Thanks for being here, Dr. Shervington.
Dr. Denese Shervington: Hello, Melissa, and thank you so much. Your description of what's been happening is so on point.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Well, first, let me just ask because I feel like I must, Dr. Shervington, inquire about you and about your staff at the Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies are all well, and evacuated, and dry, and having power and light.
Dr. Denese Shervington: Everyone is well. Of course, the most important thing, no one was physically harmed. For those who stayed, of course, there are those infrastructure problems, but they have found ways to cope. Everybody that I know in New Orleans is okay.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Of course, that language that you just used about finding ways to cope. This is so much of the work that you and your organization have been doing now for going on two decades post-Katrina. Can you talk a little bit about some of the residual trauma effects of Hurricane Katrina and how you saw COVID-19 re-traumatize the city?
Dr. Denese Shervington: Yes. When COVID-19 happened, it was very close to Mardi Gras. People were at the height of enjoying themselves, the yearly ritual. For many people, you talk about shock, no one knew-- I actually was in New Orleans on Mardi Gras Day hanging out, having fun. We were only to learn a month later that this was the superspreader that took away so many of our beloved people.
With Hurricane Katrina, again, talk about shock. People we knew that there was a hurricane. It was somewhere in Florida in terms of the acute disaster of the hurricane. No one thought that a day later, the city was going to be flooded and everything that happened, the negativity around how we were treated as New Orleanians, the physical loss, and then just having to cope as you mentioned, shocks. Acute shocks create trauma.
What happens when we experience trauma is the brain goes into survival mode. Unless we get the right kinds of support, the psychosocial supports that we need, a significant amount of us are going to develop trauma-based conditions.
Our work in New Orleans was really to lift up the importance of paying attention to the human condition of trauma. We actually eventually started collecting data to show how many children were experiencing the result of going through a traumatic event without being acknowledged and supported. We really focused on what we call psycho-education, letting people know that when these kinds of shocks happen, one, we are to expect that we are going to have emotional reactivity, and that we need to understand how to manage.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I wanted to emphasize again your point about children because I know one of the things we've discussed over the years is this language that somehow Katrina improved the schools, things got better. Your work around the trauma that children experience clearly challenges that by saying test scores are less relevant than what our young people are experiencing in their hearts, in their minds, in their families, in their ability to be resilient.
I'm wondering, again, given that Ida happened at the exact same time of year, right here at the beginning of a school year that was already after so much disruption related to COVID, what are some of the things people should be looking for in their children in this post-Ida moment?
Dr. Denese Shervington: Just to step back a little bit, there has been language that's emerging that Ida was not as bad in terms of the physical damage as Katrina. I am positing that because it happened on the bittersweet anniversary, sweet 16 of Katrina, that the mental fallout is perhaps going to be even worse. Always in New Orleans, right under the surface, whenever there's heavy rain, whenever there's any threat of a storm, people become hyper-aroused.
They become reawakened to the old traumas. For many, it has not fully resolved. Even though there might not be as much physical damage with the bittersweet 16 anniversary of Katrina, with COVID, I think that the mental health fallout is going to be very, very challenging. In particular, for children, because children oftentimes don't have the language to tell you how they're feeling inside.
It's hard for them to put the emotional language that is necessary to get our attention. What children do, they show you in their behaviors. They don't oftentimes tell you. What I think we're going to have to do, as we have begun doing because of COVID, really doing universal mental health screening for kids. Unfortunately, what happens with our children, in particular children of color, when they're emotionally dysregulated and we see it in their behaviors, we tend to label them as bad and not sad as they oftentimes are.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's sad-bad distinction is really clear to me in this moment. Talk about some of the behaviors, effects that we might see, for example, in school once schools are able to open again, once there's power. What should schools and families, communities, neighborhoods be looking for?
Dr. Denese Shervington: They should be looking for children who are either-- I don't like to term, but I think this is the one we understand, the ones who seem to be acting out, whose behaviors are dysregulated, who might be more talkative than usual. Then, on the other hand, children who are a little more blanked out, who are not as engaged. Those are the children usually at the spectrum of trauma.
We need to be able to say to these kids, "What has happened? Talk to me. Tell me what you're experiencing." Oftentimes we tend to perceive these kids as bad. We think there's something wrong with them. Unfortunately, when we play into that negative narrative of our kids, some of them will end up in the criminal justice system. When we can't recognize that these are kids who are very emotionally dysregulated because bad things, a series of bad things have been happening in their lives.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Of course, the teachers, the educators, the parents, and communities themselves are also experiencing these shocks and this ongoing trauma. Do you have thoughts about the ways that-- again, community resources, not just individuals on the couch, but communities can actually build some resilience buffers to assist one another in moments like this?
Dr. Denese Shervington: Yes. Thank you for highlighting the teachers. We just completed a survey in the-- I almost said post-COVID, in the COVID era where teachers are showing a lot of signs and symptoms of trauma-based conditions; a lot of anxiety, a lot of sadness, and depression. What we're going to have to do as a community, we have to stand up for each other. We have to let all of us know that we belong to each other and the message that it's okay to be feeling anxious.
It's okay to be sad. It's okay to be angry. That message needs to be there so that we can let people know that they're having a normal reaction to very abnormal conditions and now, another acute shock. I think when, as a community, we can use that language together, we will know how to turn up for each other. The beautiful thing about New Orleans is that we already have the fabric for doing that. We always turn up to support and care for each other.
However, being in a pandemic, one that's airborne, you can imagine the restrictions. Within masking, being cheerful, hopefully getting vaccinated, we have to be present with each other. For example, at the IWES, we have been doing virtual support groups during COVID where people can come and talk about how they're feeling in a safe space and where we share our stories with each other. We help each other learn how to cope with some of the negative emotional reactions that are normal that we're having.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Denise Shervington is founder and CEO of the Institute for Women & Ethic Studies, a national nonprofit health organization in New Orleans. Thanks so much, Dr. Shervington.
Dr. Denese Shervington: Thank you so much for caring about new Orleans, always, and Louisiana.
Melissa Harris-Perry: If you or someone you know is experiencing stress, anxiety, or depression due to these natural or human-caused disasters and shocks, you can call the disaster distress helpline. That number is 1-800-985-5990.
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