After nearly a week of following news coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, Rita Hess was feeling “overwhelmed.”

So much bad news. So many horrific images. Relentless. Hess cried every day.

“I kept wanting to hear something good,” said Hess, of Enid, Okla. “I literally went to sleep one night with the TV on hoping to wake up to good news.”

By Saturday, she finally forced herself to turn off the television. She had to get away from Katrina, if only for a little while.

That’s a typical reaction during and after a disaster, experts say. And a healthy one.

“I did that myself on Saturday,” said Fran H. Norris, a research professor at Dartmouth Medical School specializing in disaster response. “You reach a point where you need to take a break.”

Studies suggest that excessive watching of disaster coverage “can be distressing,” added Norris, who is also affiliated with the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in White River Junction, Vt.

A poll after the December 2006 Asian tsunami revealed 58 percent of Americans followed news of that disaster “very closely” – one of the largest responses in nearly 20 years of monthly indexing by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

But, “as with any crisis or disaster, people move on,” said Carroll Doherty, associate director of the center in Washington, D.C. “And in some ways, normalcy returning is a good thing.”

Part of that turning away from the horrors of disaster may be due to an emotional numbness that sets in.

“This tends to happen when people feel not only overwhelmed by images but also helpless to do anything,” said Susan Moeller, author of “Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death.”

“Perhaps they’ve already made donations to the Red Cross or Salvation Army, already held a bake sale to raise money,” said Moeller, an associate professor of journalism at University of Maryland.

That’s what happened with Hess. “I’ve donated at my church but I still have this feeling of needing to be doing more somehow.”

Moeller said after donating or volunteering, “it’s hard to feel the information from the news you’re taking in can help you do anything else.”

That’s about when most stories begin to fall off the front pages and leads of television reports. “It’s unusual that a story will last longer than a week, even a horrific crisis,” Moeller said.

And as Hess observed: “People start to lose interest as the drama begins to dissipate.”

September also is a difficult month for Americans to focus on any story. They’re getting children to school, and returning to work from summer vacations, “parts of their lives that need increasing attention,” Moeller said.

Aspects of the hurricane story that will keep them reading and viewing are those that affect them directly, experts say, such as rising gasoline prices due to refinery problems along the hard-hit Gulf Coast.

As for Hess, on Saturday she had family over for dinner, and spent the evening bug-hunting for her niece’s 4H project.

“Such a pleasant distraction,” she said, “to be concentrating on something as mundane as grasshoppers and bumblebees.”

Then it was back to Katrina.

“Ninety percent of me just can’t get enough,” she added, “and the other 10 percent says, stop. It’s hard to watch, but hard not to.”

LF END SEFTON

(Dru Sefton can be contacted at dru.sefton(at)newhouse.com)

AP-NY-09-06-05 1657EDT


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