Post-traumatic stress symptoms typically last a month or so, says John Violanti, University at Buffalo professor of epidemiology and environmental health.
But police officers who responded to Hurricane Katrina still had remnants of PTSD symptoms six years after the storm. And that is extremely unusual in this group, Violanti said, commenting on the significance of the hurricane 10 years later.
With a grant funded by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Centers for Disease Control, he surveyed 123 officers in the New Orleans geographic area in 2011, six years after Katrina.
“It was surprising to see the level of trauma symptoms still present after all that time,” says Violanti, who served with the New York State Police for 23 years and now studies psychological and biological indicators of police stress. “Usually trauma like this wanes, but in this case, signs of the hurricane are still around and things have not improved to a degree where they could forget about the storm.”
The impact of the storm was so severe that after that time had passed, 43 percent of women and 47 percent of male officers surveyed had symptoms that could meet the criteria for PTSD, he said.
Symptoms included flashbacks, nightmares, not being able to sleep and loss of the ability to feel emotions, he said.
“The thing that made this difficult is that these officers had to enforce the law, while at the same time having to deal with their own personal losses during this huge disaster,” Violanti said. “During off-hours, due to the destruction of their homes, many officers lived in temporary housing and continued to try to meet the needs of their families.”
Many officers’ work duties included looting control, crowd control and rescuing individuals from flooded areas, as well as the retrieval and removal of bodies, Violanti said. Officers also faced open hostility from the citizens they were trying to aid, including being shot at, he said.