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This Sunday, it will have been five years since Hurricane Katrina — or more specifically, the failure of federally-built levees and subsequent flooding  — devastated the Gulf Coast (and New Orleans in particular).

Since then, there have been many positive steps taken towards rebuilding in the physical, mental, and social sense. Despite the recent and ongoing environmental and economic havoc wreaked by the BP oil spill, ABC News reports that “five years of rebuilding homes, businesses and morale have buoyed the spirits of those who saw the city at its worst.”

But as a FOX News article today points out, Katrina left a legacy of health concerns that have yet to be substantively addressed:

“Being exposed to transient home situations, not being able to get access to care and the adversity of just the recovery process fraught with so many difficulties added and compounded the stress and trauma of being exposed to the devastation and personal loss of life and property during the event of the hurricane and the flooding itself,” said Anthony Speier, psychologist and deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Behavioral Health for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. “So that kind of set the stage for increased vulnerability of the population.”

The article highlights the mental health disparities faced by New Orleans residents — disparities that New Orleans Schweitzer Fellow Emily Mabile is working to address.

“Many issues following Hurricane Katrina are still present. In the forefront of these are mental health issues,” says Mabile, a student at Louisiana State University Health Science Center School of Public Health who is utilizing art therapy techniques to improve the mental health of youth in Central-City New Orleans.

“There are so many concerns here that need addressing by capable and willing volunteers,” Mabile says. “With this project, I will be able to play my part in helping to rebuild this city even better than before.”

The rest of the 2010 New Orleans Schweitzer Fellows are all working to do the same.  

For example:

  • Reece Alkire and Meagan Relle are partnering with Volunteers of America to develop and implement a disease prevention and health education curriculum based at a homeless veterans’ transitioning facility in uptown New Orleans.
  • Megan Burns from the LSU Health Sciences Center School of Public Health is working with local elementary school children to develop a community based school gardening program in an effort to increase their knowledge and skills regarding growing, preparing, and marketing fresh produce.
  • Jenipher Jones will partner with the Southern Poverty Law Center, helping to carry out a “School to Prison Reform Project” assessing the needs of families whose children have been asked to leave public school due to behavioral problems and disabilities. 

And Schweitzer Fellows from other locations across the country are doing their part as well. Take Thomas Azwell, a Fellow from the Bay Area whose environmental and community work we wrote about last year. He has been hard at work on issues related to the Gulf oil spill — “including,” he says, “educational outreach to the public on topics such as chemical dispersants, bioaccumulation, and polypropylene.” Watch a video from CNN here.

Azwell has also been meeting with various researchers and spill response officials in Indiana. And, he says, “I met with some BP executives with the hope that they will begin replacing some of the polypropylene-filled absorbent booms with natural fiber — more specifically, bagasse, a waste material from Louisiana sugar factories.”

Why? Because BP has “deployed 11 million feet of absorbent sock net boom.  Rather than disposing of these booms in landfills, we would now have the ability to bioremediate oil-soaked bagasse booms via methods of composting.”

Browse the full listing of New Orleans Schweitzer Fellows’ projects here. And on August 29th, we encourage you to follow in their footsteps by doing something that honors all of those who lost their lives, livelihoods, and homes five years ago — whether it’s volunteering at your local homeless shelter; visiting a lonely, elderly relative; or bringing a warm meal to a neighbor who’s struggling.

Click here to support the New Orleans Schweitzer Fellows Program. Click here to download an informational one-pager about the New Orleans Schweitzer Fellows Program.