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Without Funding, Flood Victim Counseling Program Shuts Down

Della Hasselle
Flood victim James Farris stands with Edith Furlough (left) and Rosalie Willis (right) in front of his home in Central, La.

Traumatic experiences like major floods can have psychological ramifications. Since Hurricane Katrina, FEMA has sent money to Louisiana to provide counseling for survivors struggling with poor mental health every time a disaster hits the state.

A program called Louisiana Spirit has been providing that service to victims near Baton Rouge since the floods last August. But as the one-year anniversary approaches, the program is winding down — leaving some victims in the lurch.

For James Farris, this past year has been the hardest of his life. His home was among thousands ruined when water rose to the rooftops in Central, La. last summer. We first heard his story in December.

"I've never been through nothing like that before," says Farris. "My neighbors was blowing their horns and beating on the windows..." Back then, Farris, who is 64, had just started to rebuild. His house was gutted to the bare studs.

He's made some progress since then. There's now a fresh paint job on the ceiling and walls where empty space used to be. "We gutted it out from the floor to the ceiling," he says. "And as you can see, we got all that put back in. And we had spray insulation put in to encapsulate it."

But, so much is still unfinished. He's missing basic appliances, including a stove and washing machine. Bedroom closets have no doors, and construction dust is everywhere. Farris thought he'd be further along by now. After all, it's been a year since what scientists call the "1,000-year rain."

But Farris has run out of money for repairs. Helping hands have disappeared. He feels powerless, and that's taking a toll. "And uh, I'm really having a hard time holding it together," he says, voice cracking with emotion. "Everybody has been so great to us, that we wouldn't have made it this far if it hadn't been for people reaching out to us. But it's like we're stuck now. And I don't have nowhere else to go."

There's a medical reason Farris is so overwhelmed. After the flood, he was one of many diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He's been coping by talking to workers with the Louisiana Spirit Crisis Counseling Program. They help flood victims deal with mental health issues, like depression and anxiety.

For the past year, a counselor named Edith Furlough has visited Farris at his home every couple of months. Their sessions sound something like this:

Edith: "We want you to connect with people, to get back like you were before the flood. Because I know you were a happy man."

Farris: "Yes, Ma'am."

Edith: "You show me some happiness and joy like you were before. We want you to do better."

Farris: "Yes, Ma'am. OK."

Edith: "OK, I love you, Mr. Farris."

Farris: "And I love you."

But soon, Farris will lose that connection, too. The counseling program will shut down at the end of August because the FEMA grant that funded it isn't being renewed. The program was never meant to be permanent. It's initiated after disasters like the flood, and then discontinued until the next catastrophe comes along. Many will be affected. Officials say nearly $7 million was spent on about 60,000 flood-related counseling sessions throughout the state. Nicole Coarsey, with Louisiana Spirit, says there's still a need for mental health counseling. "We did a need assessment back in March to validate the need for us to continue to be in the field providing services to the survivors," she says. "But again, we were not approved for the additional funding, so we're really trying to work hard with the survivors that really could use us to help get them connected to resources."

Some will be directed to food banks and churches. Others will be sent to Catholic Charities, which does long-term case management. Counselors there can help some of the neediest people, like Farris.

Still, they won't do home visits the way Louisiana Spirit does. And that concerns Coarsey, because for some, anniversaries have triggers. "It's just kind of a reminder, especially if they're not in their home," Coarsey says. "They were thinking, at this point they should be in their home and they're not."

Matthew Muse, a team leader for Louisiana Spirit, agrees that the counseling provides a support system and helps with emotional recovery. But ultimately, counselors try to give survivors the tools they need to help themselves. "The entire process has been about self empowerment and resilience," Muse says. "Making the survivors able to stand on their own — more of a stepping stool than a crutch."

In the meantime, Farris is thankful for the help he's gotten and looking forward to easier days to come.

Do you have feedback or a flood-recovery story you'd like to share? We welcome your comments here.


This story was made possible by the Louisiana Public Radio Partnership, with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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