Psychologists observe mixed signs in hurricane survivors

MIAMI -- South Florida survivors of Hurricane Andrew living in tents are showing a variety of behaviors, some of which are positive, and others which are not, mental health experts say.

A panel of University of Miami psychiatrists and psychologists agreed that as many as 90 percent of storm survivors will experience symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, similar to what some war veterans undergo, said Dr. Racquel Cohen.


Cohen, who directs the university's World Health Collaborative Center, said the number of survivors she has met suffering from major depression was the worst she had seen in 20 years of working with disaster victims.

'People are having to deal with a lot of things -- their children, the roofers, the contractors, and the insurance adjusters,' Cohen said. 'The worst, of course, is the loss of lives as they knew them.'


Dr. Jon Shaw, chief of the university's division of children and adolescent psychiatry, said children aged 4 to 10 were showing some of the most severe after effects of the storm.

'Smaller kids cling to their mothers almost non-stop,' Shaw told the Fort-Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in Friday's editions. 'A lot of them act out their fears playing hurricane games that involve building a house and then completely destroying it.'

Other psychologists noted the varied effects of the presence -- and departure -- of the military in the area.

Psychologist Dr. Marci Ronik predicted a rise in domestic violence following the scheduled departure of thousands of troops next week. She said she anticipated an increase in anger, confusion, and dismay as residents see the troops leave, explaining that the military was seen as 'a source of security'.

'I think we should all be prepared to see a lot of depression, domestic violence, perhaps suicide, and agitation in all these people,' Ronik said.

Psychiatry Professor Dr. Thomas Mellman suggested the reduced military presence would benefit Vietnam veterans already struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Mellman said being forced to live in military tents while surrounded by soldiers and equipment added to the anxiety veterans experience.


Hurricane Andrew hit south Dade County early Aug. 24 with winds of 145 mph gusting to 175 mph. The storm caused damage estimated to approach $30 billion in Florida and is blamed for thedeaths in Florida of 42 people. It killed another 15 in the Bahamas and Louisiana.

Transportation Secretary Andrew Card said Friday about 6,000 more troops will be leaving south Florida within the next four days. Card said at a briefing that during the weekend, U.S. Army, Marine and Navy personnel will begin the trek home. Card said both contingents of Canadian troops will be leaving on Tuesday.

Card says as of Friday there were 17,000 federal troops on the ground. He says by the end of Tuesday there will be 11,000.

Meanwhile, passion appears to be returning for many of the 2,890 people living in four tent cities.

Vilma Valdes of Planned Parenthood, which set up a small booth across from the Harris Field tent facility in Homestead, said many people have been stopping by to ask for birth control assistance.

'We get a lot of women trying to replace birth control pills,' Valdes said. 'And we get a lot of soldiers stopping by to pick up condoms.'


Fort Lauderdale psychologist Dr. Richard Maulion said the trend is encouraging.

'This means the second-strongest instinct we have -- to procreate -- is coming back,' Maulion said. 'The strongest, keeping yourself alive, was threatened by the hurricane, and sexual urges take a back seat to that. So when they start to come back, that means the shock or trauma from the threat to survival is wearing off.'

Barbara Jean, who oversees Red Cross operation of the tent facilities, said Friday the chances for couples to find privacy were shrinking as the number of people seeking shelter was on the rise.

'It's starting to increase rapidly,' Jean said. 'People living in their damaged homes have held out as long as they could, but now some of the condemned buildings are starting to be knocked down.

'The tent population increased by 200 yesterday, and there may be more today. We may need more tents.'

Jean said the Red Cross had tents specifically for families with children, singles tents for either men or women only, and tents to accomodate six couples, but none specifically for conjugal visits.

'We've just encouraged couples to work it out among the others in the tent,' she said.


Maulion predicted human ingenuity would win out.

'The lack of privacy just means you need to be a little more creative,' he said.

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