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‘Katrina brain’: The invisible long-term toll of megastorms

Actually, This Devastating Hurricane Season Is Exactly the Right Time to Talk About Climate Change


Talking about climate change after natural disasters A boat washed ashore in Coconut Grove. Photo: Reuters / Carlo Allegri / TPX Images of the Day

I was seventeen when Hurricane Andrew rolled through South Florida, taking down block after block of houses. I lived in Hialeah, a city of immigrants in Miami-Dade County, with my mother, stepfather, and grandparents. We could not have evacuated even if we’d wanted to. My stepfather was a manager at a utility company that needed him back on the job immediately. Hotel rooms weren’t cheap, and neither was gas. We slapped plywood on the windows and huddled together in the hallway. We were spared the worst. Just 20 miles south, children my age were homeless.

These days, such events have come to seem less like aberrations. Maps prognosticating future sea-level rise show an obliterated Florida, a future Atlantis. In 2015 the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact compiled data predicting the rise of sea levels according…


‘Katrina brain’: The invisible long-term toll of megastorms

“In the aftermath of Katrina, many survivors struggled with short-term memory loss and cognitive impairment, a syndrome dubbed “Katrina brain,” according to a report by Ken Sakauye, a University of Tennessee professor of psychiatry who was at Louisiana State University at the time.”


Brandi Wagner thought she had survived Hurricane Katrina. She hung tough while the storm’s 125-mph winds pummeled her home, and powered through two months of sleeping in a sweltering camper outside the city with her boyfriend’s mother. It was later, after the storm waters had receded and Wagner went back to New Orleans to rebuild her home and her life that she fell apart.

“I didn’t think it was the storm at first. I didn’t really know what was happening to me,” Wagner, now 48, recalls. “We could see the waterline on houses, and rooftop signs with ‘please help us,’ and that big X where dead bodies were found. I started sobbing and couldn’t stop. I was crying all the time, just really losing it.”

Twelve years later, Wagner is disabled and unable to work because of the depression and anxiety she developed in the wake of the 2005 storm. She’s also in treatment for an opioid addiction that developed after she started popping prescription painkillers and drinking heavily to blunt the day-to-day reality of recovering from Katrina.

More than 1,800 people died in Katrina from drowning and other immediate injuries. But public health officials say that, in the aftermath of an extreme weather event like a hurricane, the toll of long-term psychological injuries builds in the months and years that follow, outpacing more immediate injuries and swamping the health care system long after emergency workers…


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