Psychiatrist volunteers to help evacuees

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At first, Dr. Bob Pensack was looking for a volunteer opportunity to help Hurricane Katrina victims in Louisiana. He was willing to buy a plane ticket or jump in his car. Instead, he discovered there was a need just miles away in Denver.

Last week, Pensack made the three-hour drive to the building that once housed Arapahoe County Social Services in Aurora but is now the processing center for Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

Pensack, a semi-retired psychiatrist, joined the on-site mental health team.

Pensack has decades of professional experience treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder through his work with Vietnam veterans in Boulder and Denver.

People who experience a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster like Katrina, will not see the psychological effects until long after the crisis is gone, Pensack said. "The hurricane victims I saw were still numb. They were still in shock. A majority of them were not feeling the symptoms they will experience later."

Pensack expects most of the Katrina victims eventually will have nightmares or find they are unable to interact with people who did not go through what they experienced. They may have crying spells or panic attacks or feel paranoid or hopeless. They might notice they feel separate from their own lives, like observers. Those are the symptoms of the disorder.

"There is nothing more traumatic than what these hurricane victims are going through," he said. "Many of them are still separated from family members, and they don't even know if those family members are alive."

Three hundred people reportedly are living in the closed Lowry Air Force Base, but the Red Cross database has processed more than 1,300 evacuees in Denver.

The building where he worked was a "one-stop shop" for evacuees, and Pensack was there to guide them through the system.

Evacuees begin by registering and showing proof of where they had lived. They are given photo identifications.

Each person is given a one-time stipend from the Federal government -- about $2,600 -- for the immediate future. They are offered housing -- spread out among hotels, apartments and private homes -- and are offered help to find employment or education. They are issued birth certificates and Colorado driver's licenses. Their lives are rebuilt one station at a time.

"The people who came through had varied experiences," Pensack said. "Plenty of the people were actually in the heart of New Orleans during the worst part of the flooding. They witnessed death. They saw their homes disappear under water."

Others may have gotten out in time, but they still experienced a traumatic experience, Pensack said. Of the hundreds of people Pensack saw in his three days as a volunteer, one man stands out in his mind. His name was Jonathan. He was 6-feet, 1-inch tall and 250 pounds.

"He was built like an oak tree, and he had a very thick Cajun accent," Pensack said. "He shook my hand, and as his hand touched mine, he started to cry like a baby.

"Even those people who look like they are coping are right on the edge. They are very fragile. He felt the warmth of a human hand, and the tear broke through."

The man had lost his construction business and his home in the flood. He got his wife and three children out of New Orleans, but he was in Denver alone trying to make business contacts to get back on his feet.

Pensack found that he didn't have much time to do one-on-one counseling with people as they came through. Instead, his job was simply to act as a compassionate human being.

"They helped me more than I helped them," he said. "They really did appreciate the fact that we were trying to help them. They made me feel better about myself that I'd made the effort to touch their lives."

Pensack returned to Steamboat during the weekend and is waiting to find out whether more evacuees from Hurricane Rita are on their way to Denver.

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