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Glenda Edwards doesn't have much to be happy about. A few hours after Hurricane Katrina swept through Mobile, Ala., the Coast Guard rescued her from a perch atop her china cabinet in her flooded home, placing her and her granddaughter, for whom she was caring at the time, into two separate boats.

A year after Katrina 

Local hurricane evacuees turn to alternative therapies

Glenda Edwards doesn't have much to be happy about. A few hours after Hurricane Katrina swept through Mobile, Ala., the Coast Guard rescued her from a perch atop her china cabinet in her flooded home, placing her and her granddaughter, for whom she was caring at the time, into two separate boats. Her granddaughter hadn't arrived at the shelter by the time soldiers forced Edwards to board a northeastward-bound, government-chartered Greyhound bus. Since arriving alone in Durham, she's slept on the sofa or on the floor in her friend's one-bedroom apartment, even after suffering a heart attack in January. She and her granddaughter reconnected shortly after that, but the girl remains withdrawn. Then, in July, Edwards was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Despite it all, Edwards recently found herself laughing heartily.

New Orleans native and Katrina survivor "Moma" Hilda Levy, right, laughs along with JRuth In. Executive Director Johnetta Alston, center, and board member Carlette Jemison during a laugh therapy session at the Bull City Business Center in Durham on Aug. 20. JRuth Inc., a local nonprofit, offers support to displaced people through a nationwide program called Katrina Neighbors, which was created in part by Pam Broom, a Durham-based survivor who recently moved to Chicago. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • New Orleans native and Katrina survivor "Moma" Hilda Levy, right, laughs along with JRuth In. Executive Director Johnetta Alston, center, and board member Carlette Jemison during a laugh therapy session at the Bull City Business Center in Durham on Aug. 20. JRuth Inc., a local nonprofit, offers support to displaced people through a nationwide program called Katrina Neighbors, which was created in part by Pam Broom, a Durham-based survivor who recently moved to Chicago.

In a ritual that's becoming more and more typical of local evacuee gatherings, an instructor named Scott Campbell walked into a meeting and told everybody they'd best start laughing. He burst into an unprompted fit of the giggles, and soon others started pointing and chuckling. Before long, young and old were doubled over, cracking up.

"I came in the session kind of late," Edwards says. "Everyone was laughing and I couldn't figure out why.... I thought it was fantastic. It's food for the soul."

Nontraditional healing practices like laugh therapy, Japanese reiki and acupuncture are the latest evolution in relief for local evacuees or, as the Durham evacuees prefer to be called, Katrina Neighbors. Though attention has not turned away from providing the permanent work and shelter that many lack even a year after the storm, focus is shifting to the psychic and spiritual wounds that pervade.

Earlier this month, the Durham group gathered in a downtown office to bid farewell to one of their own. Pam Broom, a community organizer who brought her family to town after Katrina destroyed her home, has been a leader in a local enclave of people displaced by the storm, telling her story to reporters, teaching classes at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies and presiding over the bi-monthly meetings of the Katrina Neighbors support group, which began in March. Broom is moving to Chicago to help lead a nonprofit, and her departure could have been yet another sad occasion for people like Edwards. With all the giggling, it was quite the opposite.

The Katrina Neighbors support group grew out of the efforts of the Interfaith Hurricane Relief Task Force, which is based at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Durham. Pam Broom presided over the meetings until her recent departure. "Meetings went from the initial FEMA rants to food, Durham culture and how they're starting to get out and explore their neighborhoods," Broom says. Many evacuees, like Edwards, are angry at the lack of help they've received. Others have had an easier time getting situated in town. Almost all are still dealing with trauma. "People are continuing to suffer from isolation, loss, deprivation, separation and homesickness," Broom says. The healing practices are supposed to help.

"A lot of people are very open to it," says Nikki Brown, who locates the healing arts practitioners for the support group. "They are happy that people are here to help." Brown, who has lived in Durham since 1997, is active in Stone Circles, a locally based organization that seeks to support activists through spiritual practices. "It's less stressful than going to social services."

In July, Brown called together local healers to discuss ways they might be able to help evacuees. Reiki practitioner Rachel Galper was one of them. She and another practitioner, Victoria Leo, performed reiki at a recent support group meeting. "There are some specific positions where I place my hands slightly away from the skin and let the energy flow through," Galper says of the alternative practice. "I did a very short demonstration from head to toe where they said they felt pain."

Scott Campbell, the laugh therapist, has led two meditations so far. "I talked a little about how laughing can make you feel good," Campbell says of the most recent session at the going-away party. "There are different studies that show that extended laughter, even if you're fake laughing, has tremendous effects."

Kate Finlayson led evacuees in Nia, a fusion fitness form that she describes as a mix of modern dance, tai chi, yoga and other movements.

Nontraditional healing isn't entirely foreign to these evacuees from New Orleans, with the town's history of voodoo and magic. Nana Nantambu, who made her way to Durham from the Lower Ninth Ward, was the primary organizer for a grief ritual that took place in New Orleans the week before Mardi Gras. The three-day, Afro-centric ritual revolved around drumming and a call to the spirits to come and carry grief away. A couple hundred people showed up and screamed, wept or did whatever it took to cast away their anguish. Nantambu plans to bring the healing ritual to Durham.

Galper and Campbell both admit that some are put off by the novelty and strangeness of it all. "There were mixed reactions," Galper says. "The people who were observing were a little nervous," she says of the reiki. Campbell says that there were a few who found the whole ordeal bizarre, but most found it helpful. "Usually what happens is it becomes catchy," he says.

Evacuee Glenda Edwards remains skeptical, but intrigued. "I wanted to believe but I didn't want to believe," she says of the reiki therapy. "That's why I made an appointment to try it again."

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Thanks so much for covering this important story.

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