with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

The Creeping Rot of Depression

I can feel it, creeping in from behind my eyes and ears, and curving up around my body. It pushes my shoulders up and head down. My back bows under the weight. Thoughts come in black clouds instead of bright shiny ideas and incentive. I feel it pressing in all around me, coming from all sides. I know the levy is going to break, as I can see the cracks forming in the walls around me, but I don’t know when, where, or how. I just know it’s coming.

Debris from roofs, piers, and damaged trees line the road everywhere you drive in Mobile, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenLike millions of people all over the Gulf Coast of the United States, depression is bounding on the walls of our lives.

There is an overwhelming feeling of loss everywhere I go. In the people, homes, buildings, even the landscape. When I step outside of my trailer, even though the park has been thoroughly cleaned with long sweaty days picking up fallen trees, branches, and debris that scattered itself into our little oasis from blocks away, evidence still lingers.

Deep furrowed ruts are the last evidence of the huge tree that snapped off and landed next to where our trailer normally sits. Brown dried dead branches hang from almost every tree you see, harbingers of more destruction if the wind kicks up right. Many came down during Hurricane Rita’s brush with the area, but more remain wedged in the trees’ arms just waiting for the right moment to be released to land on your head, home, trailer, car, or pet.

Blue tarps quilt roof tops from hurricane Katrina damage, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenBlue, brown, black, and silver tarps cover homes on every block. You can’t turn in a circle without seeing quilted roofs everywhere. Signs are blown out, over, or down. Cars and trucks that met with trees coming at them instead of them coming at trees, sit by the road or in people’s yards, their fragile skulls crushed and eyes cracked or shattered.

Dead tree branches line the streets in Mobile, Alabama, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenThe pile of tree debris that was once as high as a motor home along the road, obstacles to clear traffic views to the right and the left, has dried out with the overwhelming heat and drought that hit the area after Hurricane Katrina. As the single story high debris piles dried, they sank down, so at least the view up and down the street from my tall truck is a little easier. But each of these dried out piles of trees, branches, scrubs, roof materials, mattresses, furniture, toys, and appliances is a tinder pile waiting for a carelessly tossed cigarette to ignite it and go up into flames.

It isn’t just the assault of destruction on my eyes. It’s the lives altered by the destructive forces of mother nature. Family, friends, and strangers arrived in the campground in the early weeks after Hurricane Katrina, telling stories of losing their family, homes, and property, not to mention jobs. Many lost their jobs because they can’t return to work. Others lost their jobs because there is no work to return to. Stories of death, loss, suffering, trying to cope, and inability to cope fill my ears on a daily basis.

I spoke earlier of the insurance and claims adjusters and FEMA personnel who arrived here in droves immediately after Hurricane Katrina. Allstate and other insurance companies can’t hire enough workers to keep up with the overwhelming demand for inspections, approvals, and reports. If you want a job, it’s a good time to be qualified to be an insurance adjuster or inspector. More than 5,000 qualified and wanna be adjusters have moved into Mobile, going through fast training programs at the local hotels and being released into the “wild” to do everything from initial drive by inspections to onsite evaluations for homes and businesses of every shape and size. Reports coming in say that many of these will be here for 3 months to two years working on the various insurance project issues.

The depression is creeping in around them, too. When the early adjusters and inspectors arrived, most had some experience and knew what to expect. They knew that lots of money could be made, but for them, it was about the work not the money, though the money is nice. What met them was more than they were prepared to deal with. Only those who understood that the heart will survive against overwhelming odds or those who could separate emotions from work are making it. The rest are barely able to cope.

One of the new adjusters told me that when they arrived, all bright, eager, and bushy tailed, ready to make fistfuls of money, are finding it hard to cope. After just a few days on the job, the enthusiasm for the money is fading. Now, all he can think about is how fast can he get his work done so 1) the people can get the money and help they need, 2) people can get on with their lives, and 3) he can get out of here.

Damaged household items line the road from Hurricane Katrina, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenThey continue to come back with stories that are worse than the pictures you see on television. Homes totally destroyed, wiped right off their foundation, not a stick in sight. Others find homes crushed into pickup sticks. Still more find homes and businesses that either fell off their stilts or were pushed right off their foundation to sit atop their neighbor’s home or the nearby street. Huge trucks wrapped around trees, shoved against them with the storm surge and floods. Dead animals, deer, boars, dogs, cats, sheep, cattle, and even the occasional alligator, are found lying alongside the roads and in backyards and places where you don’t expect to see such animals.

Most of the bodies have been recovered, but some are still expected to be found under massive debris from collapsed buildings. The rush to recover them is not as critical as the need to make roads passable, restore water, sewer, and electricity, and gain access to the areas that still need help.

Another adjuster told me of getting a call from a woman who had to leave her damaged home as the adjusters were running late, trying to maneuver through unmarked and damaged streets with their laptop GPS units. She told them to go see the house anyway. She admitted the house looked okay, but only from the outside. She couldn’t open the door, but they were welcome to try.

Unable to park close to the house, the adjuster and his partner walked the block or so towards the house and ran into some emergency rescue workers walking the same direction. They chatted along the way to the house, which looked like one of the lucky ones, though they could see the marker line of the flood waters along the exterior of the house. When the guys were unable to open the door, the rescue workers used their equipment to smash it down. Once the door came down, they understood why the door wouldn’t open. The entire roof had collapsed into the house. What wasn’t crushed by the roof was covered with black fungus and mildew, along with layers of mud already growing plants in the humid fertile stink.

I often talk to another adjuster who works on multi-million dollar claims for major businesses, specializing in shipyards, marinas, and ports. He has come back with many stories of boats sitting on top of buildings and twisted beyond recognition, and piers and decks reshaped to resembled roller coaster rides. He came in two days ago, white and shaking.

He’d stopped with his truck to inspect a damaged waterfront area when two guys with baseball bats came out from between the destroyed buildings. Hearing the same stories we all have on television and radio, he’d rehearsed what he would do if attacked, mugged, or threatened, never intending to actually have a performance. He reached under his seat and pulled out his pistol and held it before him as the two men approached, waving their baseball bats over their heads.

They took a look at the gun, hesitated, and moved forward a step, telling him they wanted his truck. He screamed at them, both hands on the gun. They reconsidered and ran off. He jumped in his truck and ran off himself. Rehearsal had become a reality, but no rehearsal had prepared him for the after effects of his actions and response and it took hours for him to come off the adrenaline rush, fear, and anger.

Shady Acres Campground is packed with insurance adjusters, rescue and repair crews, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenI have been spending early hours at the campground office, helping people get their bill paid, fix their RV, figure out how to dump their sewer tanks, hook up cable, adjust their satellite dishes, figure out their laundry, get their computers connected via modem or WIFI, and listen to their stories. During the day, I’d check in with various residents in the campground, especially Lester and his father, Mr. Walden, often visiting with him for a while or watching him while Lester ran an errand. I’d get maybe two or three hours to do my work, then jump in the shower, greet Brent when he came home from his own long hours at work, and then be up at the campground office from six to ten, sometimes midnight or later, waiting on late arrivals and helping out those trying to figure out how things worked and what the heck they were doing. I walk the campground once or twice in the evening, finding propane sensors going off in empty trailers and motor homes, sewers overflowing, and water lines leaking, all because so many of the new temporary residents are brand new to this RV living lifestyle. Then back to the office to answer more questions and help more people, and all the time, their stories come at me in waves.

I wish I could tell you all of their stories, but they all involve sadness, misery, hopelessness, and depression, with the occasional spark of good will and joy. Mostly, it’s exhaustion.

Like many of them, I, too, fall asleep within minutes of my head hitting the pillow, only to wake repeatedly in the night and stare at the ceiling, or watch the hours tick by on the illuminated clock. Six o’clock arrives and I leave my snoozing husband to slip into my workout clothes and try to get past the office for a short walk without getting caught by someone else with a problem or question. Four mornings out of the past fourteen have I been successful.

I predicted early on that the greatest need that would probably go unheeded throughout the area is post traumatic stress syndrome. People are reeling from their own personal and private losses, but the workers who are going into these ravaged areas, hauling away debris, picking up the remains of the lost lives and homes, helping the victims, reporting on the damage, clearing the roads, connecting the electricity and water, repairing and replacing the beginning the reconstruction.

Rumors flew around last week that an insurance adjuster had been killed by a home owner when the adjuster told them that he wasn’t the final decision maker and that he was just there to collect the information and report back to the office. The owner wanted the money and help now, and so he pulled out a gun and shot the insurance man. Everyone was talking about it, worrying, considering taking seriously the recommendation to get armed before going into the devastation area. It turned out to be just a rumor and no evidence was found, but tensions were running high as inspectors reconsidered their reasons for being here.

A tree removal team is staying on the far side of the campground. They bring in their heavy equipment in and out during the day, but now leave it parked in the driveway of an abandoned and damaged house across the street. They have their own stories of working in the sweating 100 degree temperatures cutting up trees and pulling them from homes and buildings stuck in at odd angles. Some just fell onto the homes, while others were driven through like giant spikes. The work is back breaking, but it must be done.

Someone reminded me this morning that we were coming up on the one month anniversary in a few days of Hurricane Katrina’s pounding and destructive arrival. One month. Where did it go? I don’t remember “doing” anything. No major accomplishments. No successful stories of learning new things, writing about new topics, or actually finishing any projects. I know things happened. I know work that was necessary got done. But when, where, and how, I don’t remember. I can’t think beyond the next emergency moment. I need to make plans, get back to my work, and get back to business, but my brain can only focus on the thing in front of me. How to help the next person. I can wait.

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