Hurricane Katrina destroyed most of New Orleans and left the greater Gulf Coast area wrecked. Nearly 2,000 people were killed as a result of the storm and thousands more were permanently displaced from their homes. With an estimated $108 billion dollars of damage, Katrina was also the also costliest disaster in U.S. history. All told, the entire population of New Orleans had their lives forever altered. One consequence of this was a mental-health epidemic. Experts say mental illness flooded into New Orleans as Katrina’s waters receded.
The New Orleans Health Department issued a report on the state of mental health in the city in 2012. Seven years after Katrina, it concluded that while community-wide stress and trauma related to Katrina increased the need for mental-health services, the infrastructure needed to service those in need was also obliterated by the storm.
Studies estimated that between 22 and 42 psychiatrists returned to New Orleans in the fall and winter of 2005. Prior to Katrina there were between 196 and 208 psychiatrists practicing in the New Orleans area for 480,000 residents. After the storm, many hospitals closed their psychiatric wards which created a lack of psychiatric beds and resources to serve the mentally ill. The number of chronically mentally ill incarcerated in Orleans Parish Prison increased during this time and has remained high, although capacity to provide services to this population is limited.
Raynell Stewart was just 17 years old when Katrina hit her neighborhood, the Algiers section of the city. Born and raised in New Orleans, Stewart says that her family never really paid much mind to hurricane season. It usually came and went with a lot of fanfare but minimal damage. She says she first learned about the coming storm just a day before it made landfall and expected it would be no different from hurricanes past.