Responding "In Place" to Katrina

by Geri Miller

Most people reasonably think, as they hear me state that I responded to Hurricane Katrina as an American Red Cross disaster mental health worker, that I went to the Gulf and counseled survivors. I did not. I wanted to go there; but "there" was not where I was needed.

I essentially worked two jobs after Katrina hit: My university job and my volunteer job with the Red Cross. At one point early in the disaster, my husband helpfully said, "Think of yourself as deployed for the Red Cross even though you are not at the disaster." He helped me picture myself co-existing within the intensity of the academic setting and also at the disaster site. The reality was that I had been deployed: I just responded by staying in the same place.

I have worked previously as a Red Cross disaster mental health worker, both in response to 9/11 in New York, and also during local disasters. So every part of my being wanted to go in response to Katrina. I love New Orleans, its people, culture, music, and food, and grieved at what I saw on television and heard through the Red Cross office. I wanted to go. Yet, my local chapter director said, "Geri, I need you as a trainer. I need you to train mental health workers so they can go instead." His request made sense. I am a teacher and trainer, and we had opportunity locally. My respect for him and the American Red Cross sent me on a journey of "standing still," in a way that pushed at my patience and my desire to respond to the suffering of the survivors.

My psychologist husband, who has responded with me in the past to other disasters, trained local mental health counselors with me. We led two trainings in one month and increased our local Red Cross mental health disaster team from 6 people to 40. I did all the arranging, setting the dates, finding sites, advertising the trainings, signing people up, buying necessities, the food, arranging the room. I do not know when I have ever worked so hard in my life.

During all of this, people helped me deal with my impatience at not going myself: My piano teacher, Barbara Henderson said, "You are a General in this one... (as opposed to a foot-soldier)." My family reminded me, "What you are doing is important because you are helping a lot of people go if they are needed." Repeatedly, people reminded me of the good I could do by training more people to help, both now and in future disasters. While their comments were a comfort, still. Not going felt unnatural, and those same feelings still arise as I write this piece.

Of the people we trained, four went. While they were gone, I dealt with my impatience and my concern by cross-stitching thank-you bookmarks for them with the Red Cross symbol and their initials. Since coming back, they have caught me as we've passed in our small town to tell me they were okay, or have e-mailed me messages of "thanks" for my support, and reassurances that they were fine.

I also set up a local mental health disaster system, since we have never had so many volunteers before. I just completed doing that a week ago, working with two other therapists and the local chapter director on a plan that makes sense to our area. I also developed an e-mail List-Serv for all our mental health workers with the assistance of a computer teacher. It was used when the local office called to see if mental health workers were available to go.

During all of this, people would say to me, "How are you doing it?" I found myself coping as I had done in response to the 9/11 crisis: Meditating daily, working out physically for an hour or an hour and a half a day, resting and sleeping as much as possible. A university administrator asked me how I was managing, and my ready answer was, "I'm grading papers at interesting times, in interesting places." 
The kindness and compassion I saw in others also sustained me. One morning before training, when I was setting up the facility at 5:00 a.m., Tom, an employee with a bad back, insisted on helping me carry training materials in. A woman came up to me as I was making copies in Staples while wearing a Red Cross shirt and said, "I want to do something in response to Katrina, but I am poor and have no money and I cannot go. Can I give blood? Do you know who I can contact?" My overworked graduate assistant, Sarah Philbeck, immediately changed her hectic schedule to help the local Red Cross office arrange for Appalachian State University students to write letters to survivors.

I hung on to a metaphor I used during 9/11: We are all a part of a "Pyramid of Goodness." Some respond directly to the disaster, supported by others who work behind the scenes. This time I was working behind the scenes.

I continue to grow as a person and as a counselor through my work with the American Red Cross, and consider myself blessed to see so many people performing so many decent, compassionate acts for others. I encourage my fellow counselors to become involved. There are so many ways we can give through this wonderful organization, be it with our time, energy, or contributions. We can simply contact our local chapters and say, "How can I help?" and then do what they need, rather than what we may want.

While writing this article has itself been therapy for me, and is giving some closure, I may yet be able to respond to Katrina. I may go myself between December 5th and January 1st if mental health workers are still needed. But I have learned the hard work of sitting still, of staying "behind the scenes," of showing compassion and care by doing what I needed to do, rather than what I wanted to do.

Geri Miller, Ph.D. (Diplomate in Counseling Psychology, American Board of Professional Psychology) is a professor at Appalachian State University, Boone, NC. A licensed psychologist, licensed professional counselor, and certified clinical addictions specialist, Dr. Miller is currently a volunteer at the Watauga County Health Department, an American Red Cross disaster mental health worker, and a board member of her local American Red Cross chapter. Contact her at Appalachian State University, Department of Human Development and Psychological Counseling, Boone, NC 28608. E-mail: millerga@appstate.edu