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When heavy rain falls, anxiety returns for many survivors of Hurricane Harvey

Lisa Thelen, standing with her husband, Barry, and the remnants of their flooded home last September, is among many people along the Texas Gulf Coast to suffer anxiety in the year since Hurricane Harvey hit.
Lisa Thelen, standing with her husband, Barry, and the remnants of their flooded home last September, is among many people along the Texas Gulf Coast to suffer anxiety in the year since Hurricane Harvey hit. ((Courtesy of Lisa Thelen))
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HOUSTON — The rain was falling so hard that it was impossible to see anything beyond a few feet. Every several minutes, Lisa Thelen walked outside to make sure the ditch that runs in front of her house wasn’t overflowing. Just a block away lies Lake Houston, which swelled so quickly last year during Hurricane Harvey that it left Thelen’s home inundated by more than five feet of water.

On yet another wet afternoon this month, she felt as though she was reliving it all.

“My mind tells me that it’s not going to flood again because we weren’t even in the flood zone,” the 59-year-old Thelen explained. “But then it has happened, so it’s like now you know it’s within the realm of possibility.”

Such is the psychological distress that endures a year after Harvey, a massive storm that dumped about 50 inches of rain on this city and drove tens of thousands from their homes. For many along the Texas Gulf Coast, dark clouds seem more ominous. And those first drops are like a trigger. Some people describe sleepless nights, a persistent feeling of panic.

“It’s just rain. Just a little rain,” read a posting this spring on the Facebook page of a hard-hit northeast Houston neighborhood. “It doesn’t mean it’ll flood. It doesn’t flood every time it rains. Repeat until the rain stops!”

According to a mental-health survey conducted four months after the hurricane, 18 percent of respondents reported frequent feelings of nervousness, hopelessness, restlessness, worthlessness and depression. That increased to 48 percent among individuals with serious home damage, researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston found.

The emotional consequences were just as significant as the hurricane’s anniversary approached. A survey of residents in two dozen counties up and down the coast, which was released Wednesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Episcopal Health Foundation, found that 18 percent of respondents said their mental health had worsened in the past year. Nearly 1 in 5 people reported having more difficulty controlling their tempers, and 1 in 10 acknowledged taking a new prescription medicine for mental-health issues.

Jair Soares, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UTHealth in Houston, understands how slow recovery can be. A boat carried him and his wife, daughter and three cats from their flooded home in Sugar Land, southwest of the city, and he still feels anxious when he sees flash-flood warnings come up on his phone.

But that’s mild compared with the difficulties some people are experiencing, he noted. The Health Science Center in Houston was awarded $2.6 million by the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund to address the behavioral health needs, including post-traumatic stress, of individuals affected by the hurricane across the metropolitan area.

“If after an event like this you find yourself avoiding places and situations or just not being your normal self and more anxious about little things . . . if those things are severe enough that they’re impairing your ability to function and to go about your normal day, that’s probably PTSD,” Soares said.

In League City, 30 miles southeast of Houston, Jennifer Donovan and her family are about 80 percent finished with repairs on their house. She remembers the sinking feeling she got last fall upon learning that they didn’t have flood insurance. She and her husband have done the bulk of the work since then, from installing new Sheetrock to laying tile and replacing cabinets.

Not all the damage done was physical, though. At the middle school where she was a science teacher, Donovan felt overwhelmed by the challenges many of her students were facing after Harvey. One girl detailed how her father had to punch a hole in the attic to get them out and how they then huddled under a makeshift tent on the roof waiting for rescuers.

The experiences, both her own and those of her students and co-workers, weighed heavily. She started having panic attacks on her way to school. In February, she was put on medical leave; she did not return to the classroom.

“I had managed to convince myself that there was something horrible around the corner that was going to happen,” Donovan, 40, recalled recently. “I never really noticed when it rained before, but all the sudden it was as loud as standing next to a drum set. I could hear every raindrop hitting the windowpanes, slapping on the sidewalk outside, just very vivid.”

She had dealt with anxiety and depression before, “but not like that,” she said. She tracked down a therapist she used to see and started going again.

Harvey first made landfall just north of Corpus Christi late on Aug. 25. According to the National Hurricane Center, the highest wind gust was nearly 145 mph near the small coastal city of Rockport. Homes, businesses and schools had roofs cave in and walls ripped off. Piers collapsed into the bay or were scattered in pieces on streets and lawns.

Over the summer, a local church hosted two week-long sessions of Camp Noah, a national program based in Saint Paul, Minn., that deploys volunteers, including mental-health professionals, to disaster sites. Its goal is to address the trauma that children experience during and after the event.

“It gives them resiliency skills for the next ‘storm’ in their lives,” said Susan O’Bryant, Camp Noah site coordinator at First Presbyterian Church of Rockport. “It can be the everyday storms that they may run up against, and it can also be a true storm.”

O’Bryant said many of the youngsters there rode out the hurricane at home with their parents. They’re still experiencing high levels of anxiety and stress and have gotten “very clingy,” she said. “They’ve given up so much. They just want to hold on to something.”

The camp hosted a birthday party for all the kids on each session’s first day in case anyone had missed a celebration because of family struggles post-Harvey. Everyone got to go home with a backpack stuffed with a flashlight, blanket and first-aid kit.

Some in Rockport were asked to participate in anniversary commemorations, but O’Bryant said most declined. Reminders of the hurricane are still all around them, she said, and the storm is never far from their minds.

Brittney Martin is a former staff writer with the Dallas Morning News and the San Antonio Express-News. She is a Houston-based freelancer and a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.

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