After Katrina: Cecile Tebo

How ex-debutante Cecile Tebo became head of New Orleans’s mental health SWAT team.

By Maryn McKenna
Tebo visits a tent city where many of New Orleans' mentally ill camped out after Katrina. (Photo: Rebecca Greenfield)

Finding Her Calling

When Cecile Watters Tebo was a little girl, she would hurry home every afternoon, peel off her private-school jumper, hop on her bike, and think evil thoughts about her neighbors. Pedaling around New Orleans’ lush Garden District, she would imagine that the man in one house was going to hurt his wife and that the woman next door was being mean to her dog. And the person she could see through that wrought-iron fence, strolling from his Italianate mansion to knock at a friend’s back door? Casing the joint for theft. She wrote it all down in a notebook. "I wanted to be a police officer, and I thought that was what they did," she says now. "I wanted it more than anything. But that would not have been considered appropriate, at all."

For a fourth-generation New Orleanian whose affluent father belonged to one of the most prestigious Mardi Gras krewes, the appropriate life goals went like this: maintain a gorgeous home, perform discreet works of charity, find a ladylike job. Wrestling the threatening and disorderly was not on the list. Nor were raspy polyester pants, noisy handcuffs, or thick-soled shoes.

Yet here is Tebo, now 48, standing on a street corner on an autumn afternoon in a bulky, patch-pocketed blouse that bears a crescent-shaped badge. She is cradling a set of leather restraints and rubbing the spot where an angry psychotic just kicked her in the head. And she is smiling.

New Orleans has always appreciated irony. So it seems fitting that when the swirling chaos of Hurricane Katrina swept away much of Cecile Tebo’s beloved city, it deposited her exactly where she wanted and needed to be.

"We’re All Crazy Now"

The official line about New Orleans is that the city has recovered from Katrina and is open for business. It is an important story for the state government to tell — New Orleans’ entertainment industry brings in significant tax dollars — and for the city’s weary residents to hear. It is also, in many respects, untrue. On the French Quarter’s side streets, darkened antiques shops bear signs advertising new addresses in the suburbs. Trailers still squat in driveways; in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, steps once topped by front doors now lead to swaths of empty grass.

But if many sectors of New Orleans are diminished, one is growing more crowded every day: the psychiatric wards. More than half of the city’s mental health workers relocated after the storm; meanwhile, surveys taken since Katrina show high and still rising rates of suicide, anxiety, and depression.

Which Tebo could easily have told them. The administrator of the police department’s crisis intervention unit, she is the salaried chief of a motley, mordant crew of more than two dozen volunteers — nurses, housewives, students, retirees, and EMTs — who make up the equivalent of a mental health SWAT team. Operating out of a set of battered vans, they rendezvous with street cops whenever the radio calls in a psychiatric disturbance. Each two-person, eight-hour shift is slammed.

"We have these billboards the state put up, for a crisis help line: YOU’RE NOT CRAZY, CALL US!" Tebo says on a hot September morning, while heading to a call with her shift partner, Adam Graff III. She tosses her long red-blonde hair in exasperation: "The truth is, we’re all crazy now."

Graff brakes hard at a neighborhood clinic temporarily housed in a double-wide. Two police officers wait outside, minding a small African-American man with one running shoe and no bottom teeth. Over a stained T-shirt, he has wrapped a tattered swath of green satin — a discarded Mardi Gras costume, pulled from a junk heap somewhere.

"Incoherent, rambling, wouldn’t take his meds," one cop says, proffering paperwork from the clinic. "He was in a psych hospital, got out last week. He says he’s Mariah Carey."

"No, he’s not," Tebo says, climbing down from the van. "We know him." Her voice drops to a croon. "Honey, do you remember me? Before the storm, you were living in a group home, remember? We used to see you there, with your sister."

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