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SAMHSA News - November/December 2005, Volume 13, Number 6

First-Person Accounts: Boots on the Ground

John Tuskan in Mississippi

Captain John Tuskan, R.N., M.S.N., Director of SAMHSA's Refugee Mental Health Program, participated in the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort with a team of professionals assembled by the Department of Health and Human Services Commissioned Corps Office of Force, Readiness, and Deployment. CAPT Tuskan served as Team Commander for a hospital augmentation team deployed to Mississippi.

The 75-person team included physicians, nurses, physician assistants, pharmacists, and physical therapists. They met in Jackson, MS, before their final deployment to Gulfport. "We had to organize this group into a functional unit overnight," CAPT Tuskan said.

Housed in a warehouse at a Navy base in Gulfport, the team received its assignments from the state's Department of Health, then dispatched its clinicians to shelters, schools, and makeshift clinics.

"We provided staff for FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] disaster recovery centers (DRCs) where hundreds of people would be waiting in lines for hours," CAPT Tuskan explained. The team carried out 18 challenging assignments including helping at a makeshift shelter in a Biloxi high school that held 500 evacuees. "At the DRCs, the job was to see who needed immediate care," he said. "But first we had to find out who could help organize the crowd."

CAPT Tuskan's perspective on the Gulf Coast catastrophe is deepened by his experience in responding to other disasters, including the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. "The difference here right now is the vast extent of the damage and all the dislocated people."

He likened the Gulf Coast of Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina to conditions of refugees in a war zone. CAPT Tuskan worked in Kuwait City just after the first Gulf War in the Middle East, where there was no running water, no services, no traffic lights.

He added, "Right now, Gulfport has a similar feel to it—a war zone with no enemy but the wind."

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Kevin Chapman in Houston, Texas

Kevin Chapman, a Drug-Free Communities project officer at SAMHSA's Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, deployed to Houston, TX, soon after Katrina. There, he joined a 10-member volunteer team, including SAMHSA program officer Karen Armstrong and four clinicians from Phoenix, AZ.

Mr. Chapman's background in pastoral counseling helped. "It's important to have a compassionate presence for the storm evacuees," he said. "It's important they know how much we care about them."

Mr. Chapman's team also helped coordinate activities with Texas mental health agencies and Houston's Council on Alcohol and Drugs.

Two large shelters in Houston housed Katrina evacuees—one at the Astrodome and another at the George R. Brown Convention Center. A mayor's meeting, held early each morning, set action priorities. Mr. Chapman's team provided support to personnel who had been responding to the crisis and also helped agencies with long-term planning to meet future needs of evacuees and residents of the area.

As Hurricane Rita headed straight for the Texas coastline," Mr. Chapman said, "I was worried for all of us, especially for the people who suffered so much already."

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Bob Stephenson in Mississippi

Bob Stephenson, M.P.H., SAMHSA Deputy Director of the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP), deployed to Mississippi on September 12 as part of a team that included professionals who had provided support to families after the 9-11 terrorist attacks in New York City and the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murray Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Joined by staff from the National Institute of Mental Health, part of the National Institutes of Health, the team focused on providing administrative services to the Mississippi Department of Mental Health and conducting outreach to "potential hot spots."

After receiving directions to shelters and tent cities where services were needed, the team faced challenges, including finding maps and negotiating fallen trees and electrical wires, before helping at food distribution areas and making sure people got the supplies and medicine they needed.

Locals seemed surprised to see the SAMHSA team returning day after day, said Mr. Stephenson. "They'd say, 'Oh, you came back.' But after a while, they realized we were there for them all the way." 

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