National Traumas Can Hit All Americans Hard

Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie were working on an opera on the West Side of Manhattan, far away from the hurricane zone, based on "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck's novel about the suffering caused by the Dust Bowl.

As they worked, they watched the misery caused by Hurricane Katrina, and were struck deeply by the images of outbound cars crawling along the highways -- scenes eerily similar to ones Gordon was setting to music. Even in New York, the clouds of this disaster cast a giant shadow.

"You become riveted to the news, hoping for something to cling to," Korie said. "And when it sinks in that it's not going to change and that this is true and this is real, what people like us do is sublimate it into our work."

"You would see those images would be on the cover of The New York Times, and all the images in the news," Gordon added. "I mean, it was breathtaking, and I was crying."

A Current of Stress

The reaction that overtook the two composers seems to be one that affects people in all walks of life. Even for people not close enough to feel a breeze from the trailing end of the hurricane, there may be a current of stress, and that may now be affecting millions of Americans.

"They may have trouble sleeping," said David Kaplan, chief professional officer of the American Counseling Association in Alexandria, Va. "They may not want to go to work. It may start interfering in their relationships, a normal reaction to an event that the human mind was not designed to go through. And this kind of a hurricane, and the kind of devastation that has happened, we are just not designed to be able to handle this."

In Los Angeles, where it was partly cloudy, in the 70s, and 1,800 miles away from the hurricane, talk show hosts broadcast the same worried themes.

There are good reasons why the scenes of the last few weeks have raised so much anxiety in people so far away. Some of the things we're most deeply afraid of have happened -- losing everything, being stranded with no means of escape, running out of even the most basic resources.

Counselors say there is such a thing as vicarious post-traumatic stress, and that people who are glued to their televisions may experience it to the point where it seems very personal.

"It starts to sort of wear on you after a while," said Jack Kyster, a Los Angeles economist. "After the first week of Katrina, at one point I broke down and started to cry."

Kyster is concerned that the psychology of the recent disasters may contribute to a slowdown in consumer spending extending into the holidays.

"Retail industry is very concerned about what Christmas is going to be like," he said. "They were already a little bit more cautious, because last year was very, very good. This year could be a little bit tough for the retail industry."

Past Disasters Show Pattern

It will take a while before post-hurricane studies start showing up, but there is plenty of evidence from past disasters about how deeply large numbers of people are affected.

For children who watched the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on live television, the disaster contributed to negative views about institutions and a sense of pessimism, studies found. And repeated showings of the disaster increased the emotional trauma.

The same was true in the aftermath of 9/11, which was also one of the things on Michael Korie's mind.

"I think something happened this September on the anniversary of Sept. 11, particularly here in New York where we feel it so deeply, and that coincided with what was happening in New Orleans," he said. "The forces of nature and the forces of man affected us very deeply."

Despite the distance in time and location, Gordon said, "A lot has suddenly been taken from us, and we feel powerless at the moment."

Taking action just may be the cure for such sadness, according to clinical psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw. "It's the helplessness that causes people to feel so much stress and anxiety," he says.

The television host and author recommends getting involved -- either by raising money, collecting clothes and goods or joining community projects.

Bob Brown originally reported this story on Sept. 24, 2005, for the ABC News special, "Hurricane Rita: Surviving the Storm."