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Katrina Refugees Deal With Health, Emotions at an Atlanta Recreation Center

Hurricane Katrina raced ashore hundreds of miles from Atlanta, but Georgia's capital city is now home — at least temporarily — for countless of Katrina's refugees.

WebMD spoke with three of them at Atlanta's Adamsville Recreation Center. The center is a hive of activity, with hundreds of Gulf Coast residents (mostly from New Orleans) tending to their abruptly interrupted lives.

A Red Cross staffer showed WebMD a list of more than 100 people who had already registered to spend the night at the center. The previous night, perhaps eight times as many people were there, many leaving before dawn (and thus not part of the overnight count).

Though some of their concerns mirror those of people nationwide — health, family, jobs, finances — they're on very shaky footing. Most told WebMD they have lost everything. Many don't know where family and friends are. Some fled with little or none of must-have medications for their health problems.

Their tears flow and emotions are raw. They also voiced deep faith, dreams of future homecomings, and hopes that loved ones survived.

Theresa Mamon, 34, New Orleans

Mamon, a mother of six children, arrived at the center on Sept. 1. She hadn't been able to get her family out of New Orleans before Katrina struck. Before Katrina, she had just found work at Wal-Mart.

Hurricane Katrina was "horrible, real horrible," Mamon tells WebMD in the center's makeshift health clinic. The stress and anxiety of the situation had been getting to her, setting off panic attacks. Plus, Mamon says she had had been having chest pains before the storm.

When the winds died, the floods swept in. Mamon made the lifesaving choice to brave the waters and walk east to drier ground with four of her children, including sons who can't swim. Somehow, she got them lifejackets and marched them through the water to safe ground.

Mamon says faith and God got her through it. "I knew I was going to be all right. I knew! Even when I was walking through the water, I knew me and my family was going to be all right because of the power of prayer. It helps."

Chest-High Water

Mamon points to her chest to show how high the water was. "That was over my sons' head," she says.

"Our house was under water. We couldn't get out. We didn't have any food, any water. That's understandable due to the storm, but there were Army trucks that was passing us by. We walked from New Orleans east to across the river in order get transportation to leave out of the city of New Orleans," she says.

"My sons have blisters on their feet. They have rashes between their legs from their clothes being wet. It's just ... I mean, it was horrible, horrible. I haven't been able to locate my family," she says, speaking of her sister, who has five children who also didn't know how to swim. "I don't know if she's alive."

Mamon says her 18-year-old daughter, a deputy sheriff in New Orleans, doesn't know that Mamon is all right since the phone lines are down.

"My poor sister," she says through tears. "This is so hard to even talk about it. I think everybody who's healthy, if they want to do anything, just ... please, look after those kids. There are children out there. And those people who are making matters worse, I just wish they'd stop so that they can get the help that they need to get out of there."

"I don't have any money. I don't have any clothes for my children," says Mamon. Still, she says "life is precious, very precious. You only have one life to live, and you need it to the fullest, meaning that you don't need to be out here looting and raping and killing people. For what? Your day is coming."

Mark Jules, 32, New Orleans

Mark says he got to the center two nights before WebMD met him. Born and raised in New Orleans, he was sheltering at the W Hotel in New Orleans' French Quarter when Katrina struck.

He remembers hearing "a lot of stuff falling and breaking on the ground from the wind" during the storm. "It was like something I've never seen before. I never witnessed nothing like this."

"They said the water of the levee broke so we had to evacuate immediately. So we got on the highway as fast as we could and we got out of there, by the grace of God," says Jules. With family in Atlanta, that's where Jules, his mother, his aunt, and cousin headed.

"We didn't have a chance to get nothing" before the evacuation, Jules tells WebMD. He has diabetes but only had a little bit of insulin with him when they fled. Jules was at the center's makeshift clinic to get more insulin and needles, having already gotten supplies to monitor his blood sugar.

Trying to Regroup

"I need clothes, T-shirts, boxer shorts, socks, tennis shoes, money, food, things like that," he says.

Disaster relief authorities suggest donating cash instead of material goods so that agencies don't have to waste time sorting clothes. Doctors and other health care professionals should contact the Red Cross or other agencies if they want to help.

"We still have a lot of family members that are still out there, but slowly but surely, we're getting a chance to talk to them. ... Some of them are all right," Jules says.

"It's really hard to feel comfortable knowing that they're still out there, you know what I'm saying?"

Jules says he plans to stay in Atlanta until he can go back home. "I know we can't go back no time soon, so we just have to sit here and try to regroup, I guess," he says.

"All I can do is try to keep my trust in God, you know what I'm saying? That everything is going to be all right and keep my faith in him, you know? That's basically it — just having faith and patience."

Jill Costanzo, 50, Waveland, Miss.

Costanzo fled her home in Waveland, Miss., on the Sunday before Katrina hit. She rode with friends who had contacts in Atlanta.

At the center's health clinic, Costanzo told WebMD she was "not real good" and had "a lot" of anxiety and stress. "We can't get back home," she says. The departure was so hurried that "we didn't get anything" to bring with them.

On top of that, she's still grieving the death of her 24-year-old daughter three months earlier. Her daughter had a "massive heart attack and blood clot disorder" that no one knew about, says Costanzo. And in October 2003, Costanzo lost her home to a fire.

A sanitation worker told Costanzo and her friends about resources at the center to help Katrina's survivors. With a painful past, she and the other hurricane refugees are taking baby steps to what they hope will be a better future.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Theresa Mamon, New Orleans. Mark Jules, New Orleans, Jill Costanzo, Waveland, Miss. WebMD Medical News: "What You Can Do to Help."