Some Still Deal with PTSD, Five Years after Harvey

Five years after Harvey, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) still haunts many of the victims. Readers have written me about how hard they find it to shake painful memories.

  • Some complain about periodic flashbacks, often related to a trigger event, such as looking at a photo of a cherished possession they lost in the flood.
  • Others still panic in thunderstorms or can’t sleep when it rains.
  • Many feel rising anxiety as they track each new storm crossing the Atlantic.
  • Dozens feel anger at or get depressed by the slow pace of mitigation.
  • Two even told me recently that they may move away. Recovery after Harvey was so traumatic that they “can no longer live with the risk of flooding again” as one succinctly phrased it.

Recurring, Unwanted, Intrusive Thoughts

These different reactions represent a spectrum that most likely reflects a blend of the individuals’ experiences and tolerance for risk. The thing they all have in common: recurring, unwanted, intrusive thoughts that they find disturbing or disruptive.

Even though PTSD symptoms may not be as strong or as frequent as they were immediately after the storm, some still find them hard to shake and difficult to handle.

The Professionals’ Perspective

So, I contacted two local, highly respected therapists, Janice Costa LPC, LMFT, and Joni Adams M.A., LPC-S, to learn more.

Both said that they rarely see clients with Harvey trauma as their main complaint these days. But Harvey does often come up when dealing with clients’ other concerns.

Said Costa, “Things pile up. It wasn’t just the flood. It often relates to dealing with the aftermath.”

Chain-Reaction Traumas

That fits with what people have told me. One trauma piles on top of another. At first, it might have been throwing out treasured family heirlooms, such as a grand piano. Seeing belongings piled at the curb. Losing privacy as strangers gutted your home. Dealing with absentee contractors. Living in travel trailers for 18 months. Applying for financial aid. Waiting years for a check, then being denied. Depleting savings or cashing in their kids’ college funds to pay for repairs. Living with the consequences of that as kids apply to colleges. Losing a lifestyle once loved and friends cherished.

We’ve all heard similar stories.

The trauma caused by a storm like Harvey can have extensive and long-lasting consequences. Like a series of dominos, one thing leads to another, triggering recurrent and unwanted thoughts of the original event.

Said Costa, “They’re still trying to process one trauma, when something new happens. It’s like the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Trigger Events

Without revealing any patient information, both Adams and Costa talked about things that trigger flashbacks.

Said Adams, “Many people find that anniversary dates of trauma events are triggers. So are stimuli similar to the client’s experience (such as heavy rain, street flooding, weather notifications, or storms in the Gulf).”  

Costa mentioned that sometimes the traumas can be unrelated or only loosely related. For instance, one reader told me about the death of a parent. The parent had taken in her daughter’s family after the storm. At the parent’s funeral, the memories of Harvey, mixed with grief, became overpowering for the daughter.

Blended Traumas

Adams echoed Costa’s observations. “Although clients may not present with Harvey complaints as their primary reason for entering therapy today, it likely still affects some. Some already had a trauma history when Harvey hit. Then they experienced more trauma in the years following. Harvey gets blended into the client’s internal reality as opposed to being seen as an isolated trauma event that happened five years ago.”

“Because of my son’s allergies, we couldn’t move back in until all the drywall repairs were finished.”

“For some clients, the correlation between Harvey and current PTSD symptoms may be clearly identifiable,” said Adams. But in others it may be hard to link symptoms directly to Harvey alone.

The woman who owned the house above, for instance, was struggling with the aftermath of a divorce and her son’s medical issues when Harvey struck. She told me with a tear in her eye, “I can’t do this anymore.” Her parting gift to Houston was emotional testimony to the SJRA board about her experience. During her talk, she broke down crying; so did some in the audience. Shortly after that, she moved closer to family in another state.

Progression of PTSD

Said Costa, “After Harvey there were people who had symptoms of PTSD within a few weeks. Some took much longer to show symptoms. Not everyone who flooded got PTSD. 

“With the flood many people dealt with multiple traumas. PTSD can often be dealt with within six months, but in some people it can become chronic and last for years. There definitely are people still suffering from PTSD caused by the flood.” 

Costa also talked about how PTSD might manifest itself in people’s lives today. It varies from client to client. “Intrusive thoughts about what they went through, avoidance of external reminders, negative changes in thoughts and mood, and changes in reactivity are all recognized symptoms. People may still be having nightmares, sleep disturbances, intrusive thoughts, inability to concentrate, and more anxiety than in the past.”

“Some feel like their brains are stuck in danger mode.”

Janice Costa, LPC, LMFT

Costa also talked about children and people in their seventies. “Children who have PTSD,” she said, “may be emotionally numb for a period, or have depression and/or anxiety.”

“I also see people in their seventies with these negative flashbacks,” she added. “They can crop up after being dormant for years.” When I asked about why, she theorized that it might relate to the extra time that people in retirement have to ponder life. She observed, “They aren’t consumed by the obligations of work and raising kids.”

EMDR Therapy

Many people who experience fears, anxiety, or sleep problems may not realize that therapy could help. Both Adams and Costa mentioned the success they have had with EMDR therapy. People continuing to struggle may wish to explore the EMDR International Association site. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.

The Association says, “EMDR is a structured therapy that encourages the patient to briefly focus on the trauma memory while simultaneously experiencing bilateral stimulation (typically eye movement), which is associated with a reduction in the vividness and emotion associated with the trauma memories.”

Therapists use EMDR to help people recover primarily from trauma and PTSD symptoms. However, therapists also use it to treat symptoms of anxiety, depression, OCD, chronic pain, addictions, and other distressing life experiences.

Other therapies sometimes used include Trauma Resolution Therapy and Desensitization Therapy.

If you still experience PTSD symptoms, you may want to explore one of these alternatives. The memory of Harvey may never go away. So, it’s best to learn how to live with it. It could become burned into our collective consciousness under the heading of History. After all, we still talk about the Galveston hurricane of 1900!

Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/27/22

1824 Days (Five Years) since Hurricane Harvey

Landfall Map from Hurricane Record study

Hurricane Records

Today, I discovered a fascinating 49-page document produced by the National Weather Service, the National Hurricane Center, NOAA and the National Climatic Data Center. It contains hurricane records going back to 1851. It covers the deadliest, costliest and most intense U.S. tropical cyclones and other frequently requested facts. Unfortunately, it only goes through 2010. But the wealth of information on the period it covers more than makes up for that.

Like the Baseball Encyclopedia for Weather Geeks

It’s like the Baseball Encyclopedia for tropical storms…a must read for weather geeks and anyone who wants to impress out-of-town friends. Texas plays a prominent role in this chronicle.

From Page 8. Mainland United States tropical cyclones causing 25 or more deaths, 1851-2010. The black numbers are the ranks of a given storm on Table 2 (e.g. 1 is the deadliest all-time – the Galveston Hurricane of 1900). The colors are the intensity of the tropical cyclone at its maximum impact on the United States.

A look at the lists reveals striking facts. For instance:

  • Fourteen out of the fifteen deadliest hurricanes ranked Category 3 or higher intensity
  • Large death tolls resulted largely from storm surge 10 feet or higher
  • A large portion of the damage in some of the costliest storms resulted from inland floods caused by torrential rains
  • One third of the 30 deadliest hurricanes ranked category 4 or higher
  • Only seven of the 30 deadliest hurricanes occurred between 1985 and 2010 while more than two thirds of the costliest hurricanes occurred during the same period.

A Look Behind the Facts

All costs are adjusted for inflation, so that’s not the major issue. Migration is. 1990 Census data showed that 85% of U.S. coastal residents from Texas to Maine had never experienced a direct hit by a major hurricane. But we have more risk now because more than 50 million people have moved to coastal areas since then.

The study warns, “If warnings are heeded and preparedness plans developed, the death toll can be minimized. However, large property losses are inevitable in the absence of a significant change of attitude, policy, or laws governing building practices (codes and location) near the ocean.”

Filled with Tables, Maps and Insight

One of the most interesting features: maps that show the tracks of record setting storms during the entire period and during each decade.

Amaze your friends with trivia, such as:

  1. Average number of tropical cyclones per year AND how it has varied in different periods.
  2. Years with the most and least hurricanes and landfalls.
  3. Earliest and latest hurricane formations (hint: March 7 and December 31).
  4. Longest- and shortest-lived hurricanes.
  5. Lowest pressure in the Atlantic basin.
  6. Most hurricanes occurring in Atlantic basin at one time.
  7. Number of hurricanes in each month.
  8. Hurricane strikes of various categories by state.
  9. When hurricanes are most likely to strike different areas.
  10. Average return periods for hurricanes in different areas.
  11. Hurricane landfall CYCLES.

That last one really caught my eye.

Hurricanes tend to cluster in certain areas during certain decades!

Biggest Lesson Learned

The study concludes with another warning. “The largest loss of life can occur in the storm surge, so coastal residents should prepare to move away from the water until the hurricane has passed! Unless this message is clearly understood by coastal residents through a thorough and continuing preparedness effort, a future disastrous loss of life is inevitable.”

To read the full study, click here.

This is a genuine work of scholarship dished up in a way that makes it accessible to the general public. That takes some talent! Credits go to Eric Blake and Christopher Landsea of the NHC, and Ethan Gibney of the National Climatic Data Center.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/8/22 based on a study by NOAA, NWS and NCDC

1774 Days since Hurricane Harvey


Harvey Victim Denied Aid for Not Communicating After Contacting City 17 Times

Bureaucracies never make mistakes; they just defend them.

A Harvey flood victim was denied aid because, the city says, she didn’t respond to the Houston Housing and Community Development Department’s (HCDD) invitation to submit an application on May 14, 2020. However, the invitation got lost in the victim’s email and she didn’t learn of it until September 7, 2021, when the City first mentioned it in a denial of her second appeal.

Between those two dates, Jennifer Coulter, the victim, contacted the City 17 times to ask if she could file an application.

In every call, no HCDD employee ever told her that she was eligible to apply. In fact, they told her the opposite – that they hadn’t gotten to her “Priority Group” yet. After misleading her, when New Year’s Eve came and went last year, the Harvey Reimbursement Program expired, and Coulter was out. Despite multiple requests to clarify her status and two appeals , HCDD denied aid to Coulter for not communicating with them.

Meticulous Records Read Like Horror Movie Script

Fortunately, Coulter kept meticulous records of her calls, emails and attempts to contact HCDD. Reading her log is like a horror movie.

Many others, who were denied aid, experienced variations of her problems. For instance, after two years of being kept in the dark about whether he could submit an application, HCDD notified one man that he could apply just hours before the program expired on New Year’s Eve. HCDD told him that he needed to submit his application by 5PM or lose eligibility. Unfortunately, he was visiting out-of-town relatives and didn’t have access to required documents.

Chronic bad planning, mismanagement, disorganization, understaffing, miscommunication and poor record-keeping at HCDD created a malignant and crippled aid-distribution system after Harvey.

In Coulter’s case and many others, HCDD problems victimized flood victims a second time.

Coulter home after Harvey. The family lived in a travel trailer in their driveway for a year with two adults, two kids, two cats and one dog, while they made repairs with money in their 401Ks and kids’ college funds.

Organizational Travesty Compounded Natural Tragedy

I would say Coulter’s case is one of the saddest stories to come out of Harvey…if so many others hadn’t been denied aid for similar reasons.

A 2019 HUD audit of HCDD found in part that “Staff members worked independently and did not communicate with each other re: applications.” Coulter’s call log vividly brings to life the chaos that flood victims were forced to deal with as they struggled to find assistance from the City.

Of the tens of thousands of homes damaged in Harvey, Houston managed to reimburse only 120 families a mere $2,024,000 out of the $164 million allocated by HUD – just 1.2% of available funds. Those figures were as of December 31, 2020. The City’s 10/31/2021 pipeline report shows that HCDD has manage to reimburse another 22 families that managed to squeeze in under the Reimbursement Program deadline.

Audits 2 Years Apart Show Similar Organizational Problems

After Harvey, the City of Houston lobbied the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for approximately $1.3 billion to aid Harvey victims, such as Coulter. But a subsequent 2019 HUD audit showed HCDD was unprepared to manage the money, the caseload or the approval process.

Despite assistance and training by the Texas General Land Office (GLO), which manages disaster relief for HUD in Texas, Houston never got its disaster relief programs in gear. A second audit by GLO released last Wednesday arrived at conclusions similar to HUD’s.

While interference by the Mayor in HCDD operations has drawn headlines, Coulter’s case and thousands of others remain footnotes in this tragedy.

City’s Needlessly Complex Two-Step Application Dooms Program

Among the problems: HCDD set up a needlessly complex application process involving two steps. Victims had to “apply to apply” by filling out an online survey. Based on survey answers, HCDD placed victims in one of six “priority groups.” Group 1 represented highest priority flood victims and 6 the lowest.

HUD and the GLO warned Houston about the two-step application process even before it started. They told Houston it was too complex and would cause delays. They recommended that the City have everyone submit full applications and then sort through them to find enough qualified applicants to match the amount of aid available.

That way, everyone would have had a fair chance to meet the deadlines involved. Delays and miscommunication would not have been a factor. HCDD’s repair program expired last December 31st at 5PM with only a small fraction of the aid distributed.

HCDD initially told Coulter that she was in Group 6, the lowest priority. But on May 14, 2020, HCDD sent her an invitation to submit a full application. The invitation got lost in her email. And Coulter continued to call the City for the remainder of the year. Each time she would ask if she could submit an application and each time she was told, “Not yet,” despite already having been invited.

GLO Help Rebuffed by City

GLO attempted to help HCDD, but was rebuffed and actually barred from HCDD offices at one point. When HCDD continued to miss interim deadlines for the dispersal of aid, GLO even attempted to take over the repair program. But Houston sued GLO to retain it. Ultimately, the repair program expired with only a tiny fraction of the funds dispersed and with thousands of flood victims left empty handed.

Even though Coulter called HCDD dozens of times to clarify her status, in 15 months, nobody at HCDD ever told her over the phone to check her email or that she could apply. That’s how bad HCDD’s record-keeping, database systems, and internal communications were!

Sadly, we’ve come to expect and accept stories like this from the City of Houston. HUD and GLO audits repeatedly showed problems in HCDD.

After Reimbursement Program Expired, Mayor Claims Commitment to Improvement

The mayor’s response, after the latest audit and after the program expired, was in essence, “We’ll look into it and fix it if we find problems.” His press release about the latest audit concluded, “The City is committed, as it always has been, to transparency and improving its Housing processes.”

Admittedly, the Reimbursement Program that Coulter applied to is just one of many HCDD programs.

But for the Jennifer Coulters of the world, it’s too late. The HUD money will likely go unused and return to Washington for future grants that may give other victims false hope.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/27/2021

1551 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.