- The Washington Times - Monday, August 3, 2009

First of three parts

NEW ORLEANS | Using his hands, Adam Graff pushed the “floodwater” away from the frantic woman’s face.

It calmed her momentarily, but she could still see the brown agitated water, she could feel it rising again, back over her waist, up to her neck, and she cried for help.

Mr. Graff, a mental health technician, gently lifted her chin and assured her that she was in an airtight police van, and he was taking her to a place where the water couldn’t reach her: the mental ward at University Hospital.

Mental illness tidal wave

In her mind, she was drowning in the fury of Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters — a flashback from nearly four years ago when she spent three days in water up to her waist.

Such dramatic scenes are near-daily experiences for Mr. Graff, a member of a special New Orleans Police Crisis Unit, the only one of its kind in the nation, that responds to 911 calls and transports mental patients to hospitals.

• Click here to visit the interactive Web site accompanying this series of articles about New Orleans’ struggles with mental illness post-Katrina.

The unit is fighting a worsening crisis of Katrina-related mental illness that most Americans know nothing about.

“No one sees this on a daily basis like we do. This is all we do. It’s a three-ring circus, and I’ve got a front-row seat,” Mr. Graff said.

Almost four years after the massive hurricane inundated much of New Orleans and killed about 1,800 people, millions of words have been written about the devastating physical damage to the city, and hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on the fitful efforts at reconstruction.

But almost nothing is said — and relatively little has been spent — on a more silent wreckage: the health of New Orleans residents who were pushed over the edge by the terror and turmoil of the storm and have been unable to recover, emotionally or mentally.

The Washington Times spent more than three weeks on the streets of New Orleans this spring chronicling the crisis. Reporters and a photographertraveled with the police crisis unit and conducted scores of interviews with victims, their families and the front-line responders.

In a city that has famously grappled with mental illness for decades, caregivers on the front lines say the problem has grown exponentially since Katrina — and that the number of sufferers still in need of help easily runs into the thousands. Despite the rising scourge, the number of available hospital beds to treat the mentally ill in New Orleans has decreased by more than half.Locals have coined their own name for the mostly silent crisis: post-Katrina stress disorder.

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