Listening is key to helping survivors heal after Katrina, pastor says

By Tara Little
Catholic News Service

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (CNS) -- "Traumatized" is not adequate to describe what happened to the millions who survived Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

And it is not just about coping with the storm itself, but also the chaos that followed. Many saw horrors people should not see. Many were stranded in floodwaters. Many witnessed crimes or were victims of them. Many lived days without food, water, shelter or access to a toilet or shower. Many lost family members, homes, jobs -- and a way of life.

Since the storm hit the Gulf Coast Aug. 29, thousands of people -- from trained rescue workers to ordinary volunteers -- have been working with victims to bring relief. In the process they have been the first to hear the survivors' heart-rending stories.

Though it may be human nature to want to erase their pain, a Pine Bluff pastor and certified crisis counselor said the most important thing a person can do is listen.

"Part of what they're doing is they're getting straight in their own mind exactly what happened," Msgr. Jack Harris told the Arkansas Catholic, newspaper of the Little Rock Diocese. "When they share the story with one another they're getting information they didn't have, and they're putting together the whole narrative in their own minds, which is a critically important step" toward healing.

And they need to tell these stories over and over again, he said.

Msgr. Harris, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Pine Bluff, has been a certified crisis responder for the National Organization for Victim Assistance since 1998. The organization sent him to Littleton, Colo., following the Columbine school shootings; New York after Sept. 11, 2001; and Florida twice in 2004 after a series of hurricanes there. He got involved with the organization after the Westside Middle School shootings in Jonesboro, where he was pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church at the time.

Following Hurricane Katrina, Msgr. Harris was put on notice by the organization that he would be deployed to the Gulf Coast to counsel storm victims. In the meantime, he did what he could to help those displaced at the Pine Bluff Convention Center, which was converted into the city's main emergency shelter.

Msgr. Harris was visiting the convention center twice a day.

"The people we worked with ... were primarily people who were literally taken out of the water and brought here with nothing," he said. They "sat on a rooftop for nearly six or seven days and finally got pulled out," he added.

He said they expressed a lot of anger and frustration about their ordeal.

"That's something that a person who's working in a shelter or volunteering has to be ready to encounter, and if you're willing to sit down and listen to those people, you become a target," he said.

Allowing trauma victims to express their emotions, even anger, is "very important," he said. "You can do that just by being receptive and listening to it and accepting how they're reacting. Because, other than violence, all reactions are normal."

Many times people get uncomfortable when a victim reacts strongly and ends up saying things that could actually make it worse. Some may say, "'Don't feel that way!' or 'I know that everything's going to be all right.' And everything isn't going to be all right!" Msgr. Harris said.

The best thing is to listen and say, "I can't even imagine what that must have been like," he said. "Just validate their feelings and their story and accept it -- don't run away from them."

The National Organization for Victim Assistance, a nonprofit organization based in Alexandria, Va., offers a three-hour training course that highlights positive things to do or say and pitfalls to avoid when comforting victims, Msgr. Harris said. He plans to offer this course in Pine Bluff when time permits.

The organization also has posted helpful tips for those working with Hurricane Katrina victims on its Web site at www.trynova.org.

In addition to the hurricane victims, Msgr. Harris said disaster relief workers need to share what they have experienced. In fact, much of his time at the convention center was being spent checking up on the staff and volunteers.

"I need to find those people and just look in their eyes and see how they're doing because they're the glue that's holding the whole thing together," he said.

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Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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