Counseling Today, Features

Stories of the storms

Angela Kennedy April 7, 2008

Several weeks removed from the havoc unleashed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, one thing is for certain. Stories will be told about the killer storms for years to come, both by those who fled from the hurricanes’ angry onslaught and by those who rushed in to offer aid during the tempestuous aftermath. Counseling Today caught up with an American Counseling Association member who was forced from her home by the rising floodwaters and also talked to some of the initial volunteers who worked with incoming evacuees in San Antonio.

Destination unknown

Judy Miranti is a counselor educator at Our Lady of Holy Cross College in the Algiers section of New Orleans. Like many people in the Crescent City, she always “hunkered down” for impending storms and never gave a second thought about evacuating — until Hurricane Katrina.

“We have usually ridden out every hurricane,” Miranti said. “We have never evacuated, but by that Sunday morning, President Bush was speaking to our mayor and ordering a mandatory evacuation, so we knew we had to leave.”

Miranti and her husband packed a couple of days’ worth of clothes, some recent family portraits and a few pieces of jewelry. With much apprehension they left behind their 90-pound Labrador retriever in their two-story home in Carrollton. The usual drive of two-and-a-half hours to Lafayette turned into a 12-hour ordeal in bumper-to-bumper traffic. When they finally arrived, all the surrounding hotels and motels were booked or closed because of the evacuation. By chance, Miranti thought about a retreat camp where she had stayed in the past. The Jesuit Spirituality Center had one room remaining, and for the next eight days Miranti and her husband slept on a mattress on the floor. They then bounced from one location to another for the next four weeks before finally being allowed to return to a tiny one-bedroom apartment they owned in New Orleans.

“We are in our fourth location and still can’t go home because we have no electricity,” she said. “But we feel very, very lucky. We have just been strangers on a journey, and people have taken us in — they were just people who knew people who knew people. We were able to stay with people who we trusted but had never met before. It was quite an experience of faith and hope.”

The hardest part for Miranti has been facing the unknown. “You didn’t know if you were going to come back to anything,” she said. “I’m not just talking about material things but (also) relationships, friendships and family members.”

After an agonizing five weeks, she and her husband were allowed to return to their home to survey the damage. Though the first floor was unsalvageable, they still had all their belongings on the second floor. More good news: Their son, a police officer in Kenner, had saved their dog.

Of course, there was bad news to deal with, too. “The mildew was already 4 feet high on the walls, so a cleaning crew came in and gutted everything out,” Miranti said. “We hope to be back in the next few weeks. We were lucky though. We had a home to come back to. We had a home still standing.”

Although Miranti was fortunate enough to still have a place to call home, some of her fellow faculty members at Our Lady of Holy Cross College lost everything. The school administration and staff members have been collecting household goods, food and clothing on campus so those affected by the hurricane can take what they need.

“Coming back was like looking at a war zone,” Miranti said. “People are going home and finding just slabs or nothing at all. Now that the rebuilding process is beginning, we are starting to see new opportunities. If we can just be patient — I know things will be slow — but we will come back a lot stronger.”

Hope for the future

For the past several weeks, Miranti’s college has been serving as an emergency operations center and home to more than 1,000 firefighters and emergency personnel from all over the nation. The campus was turned into a massive staging area and a “tent city” was erected to house volunteers on the grounds, in the classrooms and in the library. Among the volunteers were New York City firemen who brought back the “Spirit of Louisiana,” a truck that the state of Louisiana and private donors gave to New York City after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The truck was used as a backdrop for an impromptu memorial service recognizing the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“We witnessed 9/11 vicariously and we saw how New York rebuilt,” Miranti said. “Now, here we are talking and standing side-by-side with those same people. We listened to them talk about how they survived, how their experiences helped prepare them to come down here to help us. Hearing them talk gave us hope — hope giving hope.”

“I just pray that this change is lifelong and that we don’t have short memories — personally and professional,” she said. “This has been a transforming experience. You put things in perspective very quickly, and you discover that many of us don’t live what we believe half the time. We are so work-oriented or career-directed. My research is in the area of spirituality, but I don’t think I have lived it until now. I have never lived it before — it was research, it was a wonderful topic, etc. — but in the last few weeks, it’s been a lived experience.”

Kelly USA

More than 13,000 people displaced by Hurricane Katrina were transported to San Antonio over the Labor Day weekend, and all of them were processed through Kelly USA, a former Air Force base on the southwest side of the city. Kelly USA was the hub location for the American Red Cross and other state and federal agencies. Several thousand evacuees stayed there, while others were fanned out to four other shelters across San Antonio.

Gerald Juhnke and Thelma Duffey, president of the Association for Creativity in Counseling, a division of ACA, were part of the initial wave of volunteers at Kelly USA. Juhnke and Duffey are both counselor educators at the University of Texas-San Antonio, and they called on their counseling students to volunteer to help.

“They were not counselors yet, but they could clearly talk to people, and they helped out where they could,” said Juhnke, a member of ACA. “These folks provided over 240 hours of service in a two-week period. I think that is pretty spectacular considering most of the students are single parents or nontraditional students holding down full-time jobs and going to school.”

The first night, many of the volunteers spent more than 10 hours talking and consoling the evacuees, passing out food and water, and assisting emergency personnel in administrative duties. “Our students were working full-time jobs and then coming to the shelters and putting in another four to six hours,” Juhnke said. “Our faculty members would go to the shelters in the morning, leave, go teach classes and then return in the evening.”

He noted that many of the volunteers were spreading themselves too thin, including counseling student Kari Arnold. “When you talk about compassion fatigue, she is the first person that comes to mind,” Juhnke said. “She’s a very healthy person, but given the hours she was putting in, her job and school, it was just really hard for her.”

Arnold arrived at Kelly USA Friday morning, Sept. 2, and left 12 hours later. Her unique skills as an interpreter for the deaf were desperately needed, but it was her dedication and compassion that kept her going long into the night. She assisted several deaf people through the entire intake process, followed them to the medical station and while they were getting their food, and made certain they were settled in and felt safe. She retuned the next afternoon and didn’t leave the shelter again until the wee hours of the morning.

“It was a very humbling experience,” she said. “It has changed me. It’s changed everything. I have a really nice job, a great family, everybody is safe and healthy. Everybody is here in the same town. I have a house, a car, education. All of us have all of these really wonderful things that we take for granted, and these people had everything taken away from them.”

Arnold had difficulty getting out of the house and taking part in simple, enjoyable activities such as going to the movies in the days after she volunteered. “I was asking myself, ‘Why am I spending $6 to go to the movies when all of those people are there with nothing?’ I was really struggling,” she said. “It was like survivors’ guilt. How could I go on with my happy-go-lucky life?”

Arnold couldn’t put her finger on exactly what was causing her to feel so upset. Fortunately, that week at school, she attended a lecture on compassion fatigue and a lightbulb went off. “It really struck a chord with me and I realized what was going on and why I was feeling so bad,” she said. After the lecture she paired up with a trusted classmate and talked about her experiences and feelings. “The biggest thing was the validation that what I was feeling was OK,” Arnold said. “I really needed that time to process it and really appreciate the experience. And if I had to do it all over, I would do it again.”

Counselors helping counselors

Across the nation, counselors are reaching out to help their colleagues by making donations to the Counselors Care Fund, sponsored by the ACA Foundation. The fund was established to assist ACA members and branches in the aftermath of the hurricanes. The ACA Foundation is doubling the fund by matching each gift, up to a total of $50,000.

The Counselors Care Fund provides help in two ways:

  • With grants of as much as $500 to help ACA members get back on their professional feet or to serve the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
  • With grants of as much as $1,000 to help ACA branches meet the enormous challenges of the storms’ devastation and impact on people.

If you are a counselor unaffected personally by the hurricane yet eager to reach out with empathy, you can support your colleagues by making a secure online donation to the Counselors Care Fund. You may also mail your gift to the Counselors Care Fund, ACAF, 5999 Stevenson Ave., Alexandria, VA 22304.

Counselors or students struggling to recover from the storm and individuals representing ACA branch organizations must complete a one-page application for funds (600K PDF). A team of ACA professionals will promptly review all applications, with priority given to applicants residing in the affected areas.

Those interested may also call 800.347.6647 ext. 222 for applications or ext. 350 to make a contribution.

“It truly demonstrates why the counseling profession is so incredibly special,” said ACA Executive Director Richard Yep. “The outpouring of good will and inquiries on how to help fellow counselors is yet another example of the type of empathy that professional counselors have, not only for their clients and students but, as this project shows, for helping their own.”