A Decade Later, This Katrina Survivor is Still Counting His Blessings
Ten years ago tomorrow, Hurricane Katrina made landfall and displaced thousands along the Gulf Coast. Many of the storm’s survivors came to Austin, to the Austin Convention Center. Timothy Jones was one of the displaced, but his first home in Austin wasn’t the convention center. It was a hospital and now, a decade later, he’s still recovering from his own trauma the storm left in its wake.
Every day, Jones clips a green leash onto his German shepherd, Missy, and heads to the dog park in his apartment complex.
For Jones, that's a challenging task.
“I close my walker, set it to the side, get Missy together and she doesn’t move until I say ‘go,’” he says.
Ten years ago, as he waited to evacuate from New Orleans, Jones was knocked over and trampled by people who wanted to secure a spot on the helicopters leaving the storm-ravaged city. He was left unconscious and later woke up in Austin bruised and swollen. He had no teeth and needed surgery on his legs but, he says, he was ready for a new life.
Now, Jones lives in North Austin in a second-floor apartment, a safety measure he adopted after Hurricane Katrina. With one hand he holds his folded walker, and he holds Missy's leash with the other. Then, with both hands he holds onto the stair rails and drags himself down, slowly.
“So, we come down here, we sit down on that bench for about 20 minutes. I let her loose, I let her run, take care of business, then we come back,” he says.
At 49, Jones says doctors in Austin put him back together, and that he was able to walk again and get a job because of it. Then, in 2011, he got really sick. He was diagnosed with Sarcoidosis, a condition marked by inflammation in the skin, the lymph nodes, lungs, eyes, liver, heart and brain.
“I lost both of my hips and now it's affecting me in my lungs and in my chest,” Jones says. “And, now, it's affecting me in my eyes.”
When Jones' health went downhill, he became depressed. Then in 2013, after Austin's Halloween Floods, he hit rock bottom. He wasn’t directly affected, but the flood brought back all the trauma from Katrina.
Back in 2013, Jones sat in his living room, the sound from his fish tank soothed him. He said he kept having a recurring nightmare where he was on a roof again, just as he had been during Katrina, and there were crocodiles all around him.
He says he tries to keep his mind off it, but that he had the dreams all the time.
David Evans is CEO of Austin/Travis County Integral Care, Austin's mental health agency. While Evans wasn’t Jones' mental health provider back in 2013, he says it sounds like Jones experienced post-traumatic stress disorder – the kind typically experienced by post-war soldiers.
Now, a decade after Katrina, Jones’ health is worse than it's ever been, but his spirits are high. The nightmares have begun to fade.
As Missy approaches, he scratches her head and says she helps keep him going.
UT-Austin researcher Mark Powers says there are several reasons why Jones was able to dig himself out of his depression and PTSD and that Missy could very well be one of them.
“We know that social support, for example, buffers the impact of trauma on people's lives. So, perhaps having a companion, a dog, that could be part of it,” Powers says. “But also, yes, it could be the activity of forcing me to go out when I wouldn't walk for myself, walking for the sake of the dog, taking the dog out. So, that level of activity can help quite a bit.”
Jones also attributes his recovery to finally being financially stable. He’s receiving Social Security benefits and he’s on Section 8 housing, which, he says, got a lot of stress off his back when he couldn’t work anymore.
Again, Powers says, this also could’ve helped Jones recover in the wake of Katrina – having one’s needs met, like in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
“Having our basic needs met are critical for depression, anxiety and happiness,” Powers says. “And, if those aren't met, it's next to impossible for anyone to function and feel good.”
Jones is feeling good and, not only that, now he looks for the good in everything – even his new address.
“When I moved here, 7607 Blessing Avenue, every time I call for my bus they say, ‘You know you are in a good street, Blessing Avenue,” he says. “I say, ‘I know and I like it. That's why I'm staying.’”
Jones is still a survivor of one of the biggest natural disasters the country has ever experienced. He'll be hospitalized again next week for hip replacement surgery. But, despite his physical health, he says his mind has been healed, something he considers a blessing.