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Ten years after Katrina, a new study finds survivors still yearning to tell their stories as they search for meaning in their traumatic experiences

SARASOTA, Fla., Sept. 14, 2015 – As the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, a new research study has found that survivors still yearn to tell the story of their traumatic experiences as they continue to search for meaning in their incalculable losses -- if only someone would listen.

The study also found that while traumatic, the disaster experience led to psychological growth, as well as strengthened attachment to people and place for most of the study participants.  Attachment to people in the place was key to many survivors' recovery.  One participant said, "I had to go back to get closure, to find my people, to find my community, what happened to it, see if they're okay. See if they're okay, and if they're okay, I'm okay. If they can do it, I can do it."

Mississippi Gulf Coast resident Rita Westermann-Bolton, Ed.D conducted the study over the past year as part of her doctoral dissertation.  The study, co-authored with Beverly L. Mustaine, Ed.D and Susan L. Ogletree, Ph.D at Argosy University, Sarasota, FL, explored the impact of disaster trauma on place attachment among Hurricane Katrina survivors in Mississippi and Louisiana.

“Natural disasters are devastating events that impact entire communities and often result in psychological distress and disorder for survivors,” Dr. Westermann-Bolton said. “But our findings suggest that outcomes aren’t always negative.  In fact, most participants were able to glean positive meaning from the disaster experience that eased their recovery and ultimately strengthened their resilience.”  As one participant said, " ... a lot of good things happened after the storm . . . I think it taught me that I could survive things that I didn't think I could survive.  I was a lot stronger than I thought I was."

Dr. Westermann-Bolton notes that grieving loss and making sense of negative events is a lengthy, perhaps even lifelong process for survivors.  As one participant said, "This is not the end of the story.  It may never end.  There are many folks with the same story as mine, some with a tragic end.  We realized what was really important in this life.  It was a wake-up call to me.  I will treasure life more and not things.  You can replace most things and you sure can't take it with you."

During her in-depth interviews with 12 survivors, it also became apparent that they still yearn to tell their story of Hurricane Katrina, which became a defining event in their lives, said Dr. Westermann-Bolton.  "One of the more poignant stories was from one participant who lamented, 'No one wants to listen to my story anymore.'"

“That the memories of Hurricane Katrina are still so vivid and emotionally charged attests to the profound and enduring impact of disaster trauma on survivors,” she said.  “The retelling of their stories are crucial to their ability to fully recover from the trauma they experienced.”

A lesson learned from her conversations with the survivors is the power of a “patient listening ear,” she said.  “This is a gift that anyone can give any trauma survivor and one that benefits the giver as well.  Research demonstrates that this giving and receiving of help promotes healing on personal and community levels, and leads to strengthened resiliency for future life events."

For more information on the study, contact Dr. Westermann-Bolton at (417) 234-0159 or at rwa805@att.net.

For information on emotional responses to disasters, tips for recovery, and when to seek additional assistance, go to www.redcross.org/find-help/disaster-recovery/recovering-emotionally.  The American Red Cross Disaster Distress Helpline offers 24/7 counseling and support.  Call 1-800-985-5990 or text "TalkWithUs" to 66746.

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