There were huge centenarian trees uprooted and swaths of coastline flooded. Homes and entire communities were obliterated by a devastating storm surge.

But Hurricane Katrina — one of the most powerful storms to hit the Gulf Coast in decades — left behind deep emotional scars, as well.

During five weeks in New Orleans, Shelly Koski of Eagle Lake worked to treat those wounds. As a disaster mental health services coordinator with the Red Cross, she listened to the stories of residents and relief workers alike.

In the weeks after the breach of the city’s levees, the survivors’ emotional barriers began to give way, she said.

“The initial shock of what just happened was starting to be lessened,” she said. “Grief and loss were setting in — a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression.”

But in New Orleans, Koski also met strong people, filled with hope and determined to rebuild their lives. She witnessed a proud city beginning to get back on its feet.

Driven to act

Koski said the disturbing news reports she saw on television in the days following Katrina — of people stranded on their rooftops or sweltering in the Superdome — convinced her she had to do something.

Then the National Board of Certified Counselors sent out a mass e-mail describing the desperate need for mental health personnel in the storm-ravaged areas. Two days later, Sept. 8, Koski was on a flight to Louisiana.

After arriving in Baton Rouge, she was sent to New Orleans with a search and rescue crew from Georgia. Riding into the city in a caravan, she saw evidence of the storm’s power all around her.

Where flood waters had receded — it was then more than a week after the storm — the ground was caked in a thin layer of gray mud. To Koski, it seemed like a toxic conglomeration of the dirt, sewage and chemicals that were absorbed by the flood waters.

“To walk on the crust, the dirt, it’s not like walking on regular caked mud,” she said. “It was almost crystalline. It was almost like shattering glass when you stepped on it.”

Survivors’ stories

Soon, Koski was stationed at a Red Cross supply distribution site, where survivors came to get ice, food, water, diapers, MREs — military Meals Ready to Eat — and other goods.

Koski would stand at the greeting area where people queued for supplies, approaching those who looked like they needed someone to talk to.

“Most of the time they just needed to tell their stories,” she said.

There was the woman known to Koski as Miss Audrie, who borrowed a friend’s National Guard uniform to sneak into St. Bernard Parish and get a glimpse of her home. The area southeast of New Orleans was blocked off from evacuated residents because of the extent of the damage.

Miss Audrie’s home was not spared.

“It was the first time she had seen her house,” Koski said. “It had floated down about a block and a half and it was in the middle of the street.”

There was also Miss Virginia — almost all the women went by “miss,” Koski said — an elderly woman who rode out the storm in a house built of centuries-old cyprus logs. The reclusive woman only revealed herself to relief crews after they had left food on her porch for several days.

Koski also met Harriet, a mother of four who was separated from one of her teenage children during the evacuation of New Orleans. One of the families airlifted from their rooftop as floodwaters rose around them, they were flown from New Orleans International Airport to shelters in separate states.

“Remarkably, everybody’s story ended the same way,” Koski said. “They’d say: ‘This may have happened to me, but at least I don’t have it as bad as somebody else.’

“I mean, losing family members, losing your entire life, being uprooted for four or five weeks — how can anybody be worse off than that?”


In five weeks, Koski was given two days off, and part of that time was spent in the French Quarter.

She said the historic district was beginning to regain its bustle. Restaurants were opening, horse-drawn carriages cruised the streets, and a honeymooning couple — spending their nights in a tent — was hitting the bars on Bourbon Street.

It was there on Oct. 9 Koski was witness to the headline-grabbing alleged beating of a 64-year-old man by New Orleans police officers. The officers involved were suspended following the incident.

To Koski, it appeared the officers used unnecessary force, perhaps venting stress that had no other outlet. Many officers she spoke with had no families to go home to, or even a gym to work out in and blow off steam.

“The stress was there,” Koski said. “When you’ve lost everything and you’re working 24 hours a day, yes, your stress level is there.

“It was unfortunate because I saw so much good.”

She saw children playing in the streets again, and residents working together “to regain a sense of normalcy,” she said.

“Mowing their lawn around the tree that’s uprooted or planting some flowers along the sidewalk that’s not there anymore,” she said.

Koski returned home a week ago. But after a short break, she will fly out again on a Red Cross mission Monday or Tuesday.

With Hurricane Wilma now approaching Florida, Koski may be needed there. But she hoped to return to New Orleans, a city she had grown to love.

“I knew on my second day there that it was a wonderful place,” Koski said. “It’s the culture, the people — just the spirit.”

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