Life After Katrina

How One Bodyworker is Rebuilding the Big Easy

By Diana Panara

It’s been six years since the world watched disaster unfold throughout the Gulf region as Hurricane Katrina left devastation in her path in 2005. Here, in New Orleans, we’re still rebuilding, still recovering from the levee failures in the city. As a resident of the Big Easy, and a therapist who delivers massage here, I went on a tumultuous journey as I sought to reclaim my life, and assist my clients in reclaiming theirs as well. Here is my story.

California Screaming

After living 15 years in California, moving back home to New Orleans was a long-anticipated event I finally accomplished in spring 2005. I set up my massage studio on the ground floor of a century-old house my family and I had bought in 1995 and had been refurbishing for 10 years. Prepared for start-up in the fall, I headed back to California for a summer of teaching at my other home, the International Professional School of Bodywork in San Diego, California.

When compared to other hurricanes in the area, Katrina’s visit at the end of August would have only meant some relatively minor mucking out for us in the city. The hurricane did bring devastation to the Gulf Coast, including two New Orleans’ suburbs south of the city. However, New Orleans itself suffered little harm directly from Katrina. It was the catastrophic failures of the levee system after Katrina had passed that caused the flooding.

Watching in horror from my safe perch in San Diego, my eyes were glued to the television screen. Knowing well from the experience of 9/11 that I needed to turn it off or suffer continual loops of traumatic images, I could not bring myself to press the off button. I was looking for the faces, and the bodies, of those I knew and loved. Obsessively, I peered into the scenes, examining the backs of heads, noting gaits and gestures, knowing with a sick stomach that any minute I’d see my neighbor, or the guy with the fruit truck around the corner, or the clerk at the post office, or even my own Auntie. I feared for everyone I knew in my city.

Phone calls began to pour in. “Have you heard from Aunt Betty? She was trying to get on a bus and we lost her.” “Can you wire money—I’m getting kicked out of this motel in Alabama because my credit card is maxed out.” “Can you Google Earth my house and see if it’s still there?”

In my own body, and in the voices I connected with on the phone, there were tremors of uncertainty, as well as wavering and rambling speech filled with unfinished sentences and incomplete thoughts. I felt a deep uprooting and couldn’t help but imagine what those in the city must feel—if they chose to stay connected to their bodies at all.

First Trip In

It would be almost six weeks before we were allowed into our neighborhood. The first four weeks of that time, our house sat in nearly nine feet of water. Here and there, as we traveled the country waiting to get into our city, I worked on a friend in need, but I didn’t really have the heart for providing massage. I was truly heartbroken as I saw what was happening to the people in New Orleans.

We were finally allowed to return, and to witness firsthand the devastation we had only seen on television and computer screens. Our usually lush green city was gray and silent. It would be months and years before we recovered the sweet sound of birds singing, of children playing. Visually assaulted on every front, there was nowhere in our neighborhood that looked normal, like it did or should look. Everything was coated in an ashen gray; everything was askew. And the smell was deeply disturbing and permeated everything. You could feel hearts breaking all over the place, as stomachs fell and throats closed.

Our first task was to suit up in HazMat gear and pull out everything from the first floor of our home. I barely registered what was lost as we hauled out sofas and tables, refrigerators and stoves, drapes and artwork, and, of course, my massage studio. The loss was compounded by the visual and olfactory assault that was our home. By late October, we were still on curfew and had to leave the neighborhood at dusk, camp out with friends across the lake, and drive back in the next day.

After the initial mucking out of our home, we hit the road again. A week later, I received an email from a long-ago client. She had gone by the house and, when she saw the massage table in the huge pile of debris that filled our curb, she remembered all the work she had done reclaiming her body on that very table, and she wept.

Grandma’s Rosary

Returning about a month later, we found the mounds of our first floor life still there, piled five feet high in front of the house. There was also moldy sheet rock and old lath board removed by our contractor to stem the growth of mold. Garbage removal was impossible, as two flooded vehicles blocked the street. There was nowhere to take the cars, and not enough tow trucks in town to remove them. The only option was to move the moldy piles to either side of the cars. As we began the process, we had the opportunity to discover what was actually in the piles, and to ultimately register and feel the loss.

For me, most of my practice was in that pile: client files, resource books, all my supplies, the course plans and other materials developed for classes I’d taught at Reidman College of Complimentary Medicine in Israel and Big Sky Somatic Institute in Montana. Gone. And my journals—my whole life’s worth of journals were destroyed. I grieved especially for those journals that charted my course from social work to bodywork. Gone were the records of my discovery and exploration of the body and the power of touch.

I have always encouraged my bodywork students to keep a journal, sharing with them how I could go back to see where I chose one technique over another, how I learned to “hold a heart,” how to balance a pelvis, and why I decided to call my work Relational Somatics. Through my journals, I had been able to see the development of my work, my life’s purpose. That recorded history was now gone.

Amid the feeling of deep loss and its attendant sadness, out of the rubble at the curb, and at a moment among many when the harsh reality of our situation was crystal clear, out popped a miracle. My grandmother’s rosary, lovingly extracted from its still soggy pouch, shone in the afternoon sun. It felt like hope.

The Condition of Residents

Every day I checked myself, searching for the return of my passion for touch, for sinking my hands and energy in and being of use. Bodies were screaming out to me. From the perspective of bodyworker and massage therapist, this time was, and remains in varied degree, a study in bodies under extraordinary, constant, and ongoing stress. Before the tactile feeling of trauma, there is the visual—the “seeing” of trauma’s effects on the body.

Eyes unfocused, gaits uneven, arms often clamped to their sides, people walked the streets, truly lost. Their chests were sunken, often collapsed; their necks were pulled forward, or they held their heads way back and led with their guts. Others walked almost sideways, like crabs. At first their heads swung side to side, then they held them straightforward, their eyes down. Eyes were always down, scanning for the hazards that were everywhere.

Coming Home to Myself

Finally, I started to feel like I wanted to touch, but I also felt that I didn’t have sufficient grounding to be able to deliver anything of value. I worked to reclaim the ground, returning to my tai chi practice as I was able. What finally broke it open for me was seeing the face of an old friend. Nikki, whose partner Virginia died in the hospital when the generators went down in the aftermath of the storm, endured a special kind of hell, as Virginia’s body was lost, then found, then lost again. I could see Nikki’s valiant struggle to stay on the planet; her face was gray and her vital energy was depleted. “Can I give you a massage?” I was shocked to hear the words exiting my mouth.

The moment I laid my hands on her, I was at once solid, grounded, and able to be of service. The grace I felt in that moment was awesome, filling me again with that pure healing energy, and allowing me the full exhale that I so desperately needed. Here, finally, was the way I could contribute to this great effort to renew New Orleans.

As I began working on bodies again, one of my first clients got up from the table and said, “I’m nominating you to head up the rebuilding effort. You need to do this with everybody here, rebuilding this city one body at a time.”

Even with the tools, the grounding, and the confidence to act in the face of the ongoing trauma surrounding me, I had to continue negotiating those waters myself. My own homelessness and grief was constantly mirrored in those around me. All the cues from visual observation, as well as my experience with my own body, led me to focus on grounding and bringing folks back in. This felt necessary for their very safety and survival, and yet, how could I connect these people to such tenuous, shifting ground? Was it kind to bring folks more fully into their bodies when perhaps their chosen survival technique was to disconnect? If fully conscious and connected, was this life even livable?

Reflected in the Bodies

As I continued to connect with people, I continued to see the grief. For some, breath needed tending first. As you’d expect, it was not full—especially on the exhale. But, I found it also wavered and stopped—like daytime apnea. Those of us working in the field, came to identify the state we were seeing as “persistent traumatic stress syndrome.”

Focusing was an issue for almost everyone. Unquiet heads continually looped around grief, anger, and fear. The unknown was growing to impossible proportions, often overcoming sleep. Many folks went on antidepressants, or increased their alcohol and drug consumption. Almost everyone needed help sleeping and Ambien was passed around like table salt. Of course, none of that really helped with focusing, or grounding for that matter.

Folks reached out for touch, but with hesitation, and often fearful of what might then arise. I could appreciate how tightly they held themselves, how hesitant they were to let anyone into that space, and how scared they were to allow expansion. Others were hungry for help, wanting to melt through the shells they’d grown and to feel, if briefly, their wings again. For everyone, it was a battle between awareness and living in a haze. Clear sight, opened senses, free access to feeling—all of these might mean more pain and more awareness of loss. Even a keener sense of smell might be intolerable for some. Offering the right amount, and right kind, of work was a balancing act.

Healing the Wounded

In contrast to the horror that surrounded us, the deep outpouring of loving kindness from people throughout the country and around the globe was awe-inspiring. Collectively, they lifted the weight of hopelessness from our shoulders. Our second responders—community organizers, cultural workers, social justice workers, and therapists of all sorts—were working overtime to build a frame for moving forward.

Six years later, it is important to share that much is still untended—in the city, and in the bodies of her people. Each year brought changes though, and by year three and four, bodies were adjusting, not always most adaptively, but overall functioning appeared to be improving. The “P” in PTSD is still persistent rather than post. There is a deep and continuing kind of grief not giving up its grip, as more and more of our folks are dying. Medical care is still limited. Preexisting conditions are often not tended to; newly developed conditions often go largely untreated. The loss of so many in our community still leaves a bitter taste in our mouths.

The Importance
of Being Heard

New Orleanians, being a storytelling, people-oriented people, needed to tell our stories, our own personal storm stories, over and over again. If you come down to New Orleans today, and are even moderately interested, you will encounter storytellers everywhere, continuing to pour forth the stories of destruction and rebirth.

Because of this basic need, massage sessions often expanded to create room to hear these stories. Luckily, this was exactly the situation for which Relational Somatics was built. A basic tenet of my work is that because most trauma, and its attendant wounding, happens in the relational field, it is best healed “in relationship.” It asks of its practitioners a meticulous attention to the bodyworker-client relationship and proposes to use that relationship itself as a potent healing tool.

Over the years, I have asked my students to take apart the word relationship: relation, meaning “to relate, to tell the story of”; ship, meaning “a large vessel capable of traveling through deep waters.” I have asked my students to be the ship. In receiving and witnessing, they are to be large and sturdy. Their role is to focus, not on the pain and sadness, but on the blessing of the time, the space, the safety, and the courage that allows the story to be told, heard, and held in honor by another soul. That, in itself, is healing.

What to Charge in a Disaster

Like many bodyworkers I know, I have always had a sliding scale for payments. My “give back” was usually for musicians, social justice and cultural workers, and community activists. Anyone could apply though, and I’d try to keep a healthy balance in the practice.

After the levees broke, it was impossible to name a price. How do you assess the effect of this catastrophe on each individual struggling through it? Did they flood? What about their families? Did they still have a job? Where did they have to travel to find housing, to get their kids to school, to get groceries, to get grandpa to the hospital for his treatment?

Or perhaps they didn’t flood and still had a job, but they have 17 family members living with them and a FEMA trailer in their driveway with another family in it. Impossible situations, calling for difficult decisions that alter life in ways never imagined ... and they ask, “What do you charge for a session?”

I developed an explanation that went like this: “There’s no way I can even guess your stress. All of our lives are so altered now. In this strange new world we find ourselves in, I ask that you approach my normal rates in whatever way you can.” What happened was truly amazing. Though there were folks who could pay only $20–$30, and some less than that, many of those who still had a house and a job, and virtually every person who came to work in the recovery, all routinely dropped an extra $50–$100 to help pay for the next person.

One of the clients I worked with was battling cancer. At first, he was brought to see me by his caregivers, and they handled the fee. As he went into a remission and gained strength, he wanted to take over more of his life, and that included paying me. So he asked about my fee. I gave him my explanation. He said, “No, really. How much is it?” I said, “Really, whatever you have will be fine.” From that day on, as he left his session, he would reach deep into his pocket and give me whatever he had. One week it would be $17.50, and the next would be $68.13. It was beyond grace.

The Journey Continues

There is more work to be done here in New Orleans, more wounds that need to be healed, and certainly more bodies that need to be touched. There remain many stories to be told and heard. I continue to be a witness to the journeys my clients have undertaken as they persist on the road back, and I remain mindful that I am on my own healing journey, as well.

 Diana Panara, MSW, HHP, NCBTMB, earned her master’s degree in social work from Tulane University in New Orleans, and her holistic health practitioner designation from the International Professional School of Bodywork in San Diego, California, where she also teaches. She has also taught at the Costa Rica School of Massage Therapy, the Big Sky Somatic Institute, and the Reidman College of Complimentary Medicine. Email her at