By Dr. Judy Kuriansky
For PDF version of Citizens Magazine: CLICK HERE
Emotions are expected to escalate on the year anniversary of a traumatic event. I know that, from my vast experience as a psychologist providing psychological first aide after many natural disasters worldwide, in Haiti, China and Japan, and at home, after earthquakes in California and Hurricanes Hugo and Katrina. Superstorm Sandy certainly created massive destruction, loss of precious property and lives, so it was no surprise that feelings were raw at the recent community meeting I attended in Midland Beach.
About 200 neighborhood residents convened Wednesday night October 9th in the large gymnasium in the Olympia Activity Center next to St. Mary’s Church in Midland Beach, an area of Staten Island most severely hit by the storm. The public meeting, hosted by the Midland Beach Civic Association, was the first of several planned for coming months, to solicit ideas from the community for the NY State’s New York Rising Community Reconstruction Project. Representatives from the Governor’s office and community leaders took the stage to encourage attendees to write suggestions on comment cards and post-it notes set up on tables at nine stations around the room, addressing issues like finance, housing, vulnerable populations and health and social services. With state, city, FEMA and community representatives on hand, people mingled, exchanging ideas and also sharing memories. I asked about emotions facing the one-year anniversary.
“In one word, frustration is what I hear from everyone,” Debi Vadola, Vice President of the Midland Beach Civic Association told me. “There is still so much frustration with FEMA, insurance companies, and everything. One year later, nothing has been done and the stress has just gotten worse.”
Vadola’s blames her husband’s heart attack – which happened in April after the storm – on worry about flood insurance costing $20,000 and the realization that their house was no longer worth anything.
After the storm, Deidre McGrath had panic attacks so severe that she couldn’t leave the house. Now, a year later and still on anti-anxiety drugs, she says, “I’m already reliving it, seeing the damage and gutting the house. I don’t know how I would be without the medication.”
Despite the common belief that women are the more emotional gender, men also openly suffer after traumas, like fathers I helped after the Asian tsunami and Haiti earthquake who felt frightened and helpless to save their families.
Joe Hrnnkind’s upset over the Sandy anniversary is compounded by the fact that the city just tore down the house that he had made handicap-accessible for his beloved mother but that had been excessively damaged by the storm. “Though she died before the storm, the house had so many memories of her for me, that it was like losing her again,” he told me. “I was so depressed that when I add up everything, I cry and I scream.”
Chiropractor Dr. Victor Dolan knows those same feelings. Now living in the basement of his office since Sandy claimed his house, he told me, “When I think about things, I cry. I cry too often. I cry when I think about the guy diagonally across the street who died, and the couple down the block.”
I’m touched observing how SI resident Scott McGrath extends his arm out to his friend Victor, as the two men talk to me about crying in front of each other. As is typical of bonding between those who have shared the same experience, Scott says, “We know what each other have gone through and that feels good.”
I feel so close to these men in our sharing, and to the others I spoke with, that I readily hug them too. They feel like family to me.
Anger is another common reaction after all such disasters. Since anger at Mother Nature or God is often not fruitful, the emotion can be more usefully directed at agencies and services, for example, for price gouging or slow response.
“My biggest question is why we have had hurricanes and disasters for 60 years and people are being paid $200,000 with degrees in emergency management to give us action steps after a disaster and no one knows their a** from their elbow on how to handle a disaster before and even a year later,” says Victor. “Where’s the cookbook on recovery?” he wants to know.
Equally angry, Deidre tells me, “I’d really like to speak my mind with federal, state and city agencies.” One of her major complaints, echoed by others, is that the New York State buyout program and distribution of assistance favors lower-income communities over the middle class and working families. She posts on the board, “The storm did not choose victims by income: so give equal help for all.”
A year out, people still suffer real problems, like mold, gutted basements, and rent payments and mortgage on a home they can’t go to, with emotional distress to match.
Pat Kane, a nurse at Staten Island University Hospital and co-chair of the health, mental health and spiritual care committee of the Staten Island Community and Interfaith Long-Term Recovery Organization (LTRO), told me she’s observed many cases of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). “Whenever we do health fairs, some people walk listlessly,” she told me, “and whenever Sandy is brought up, some people cry. “
Estrangement and some resentment runs high towards others not suffering similarly. “People not affected by Sandy or who only had their power out for a short time are tired of hearing about it,” Vadola told me.
“No one understands who isn’t in the same boat,” Joe Herrnkind says. “They ask, ‘Why aren’t you in your house already?’ ‘Why didn’t the city give you money’?”
Stopping in the middle of a sentence, he admits, “I get short-term memory loss from the stress. You get very depressed.”
Other common cognitive symptoms are confusion, lack of concentration and headaches.
Memories linger and haunt. Vadola recalls an older man who was “a lost soul wandering in the streets” because he couldn’t stay in his house more than a half hour due to the pain and memories it triggered.
My heart went out to the people I spoke with, especially since I had been to this very area to help right after the storm. A friend, Michelle Dingoor, and I took the ferry from Manhattan and then a bus on Staten Island, and ended up in Middle Field, the distribution center and staging area for FEMA, the New York City emergency management and other agencies. As in other situations immediately post-disasters and as I did at Ground Zero after 9/11, we psychologists do simple tasks like handing out warm clothes and toothbrushes, while available to address feelings when appropriate or asked.
The significance of anniversaries is well-known and proven by research. These days are particularly celebrated on marker days, like the 1st , the 5th, the 10th, the 15th, the 20th, the silver 25th and the gold 50th. The one-year after is obviously critical, evident in joys of your first wedding anniversary or your child’s first birthday, or in traumas like major illnesses, losses or deaths.
“The anniversary of Sandy means as much, or even more, than the actual event to me,” Dr. Dolan tells me, “because I didn’t feel the full impact of what happened and losing my house until afterwards, when I can’t find my drill or my favorite coat because they’re gone.”
Reflections about life can get deeper, and troubling, at such times. “I’m not a young man now,” he continues. “And it’s hard now a year later to realize how life passes. I even now think about how final something like death can be.”
A significant fear – as I’ve heard from after many disasters – stems from the worry, “When will this happen again?” With irony and stress in his voice, Scott showed me a text message alert he received from the city earlier that day on his cell phone, warning: “RICHMOND; COASTAL FLOOD STATEMENT UNTIL 10/10 3PM http://www.nyalert.gov/?=3906094.”
John Malizia, Vice President of the Fisherman’s Conservation Association and a Great Kills resident, is afraid that his boat would be damaged again in another storm, recalling media scenes of boats jammed up or broken loose, causing wreckage.
Others are fearful for their pets. Scott worries, “If there’s another flood and they close the street to my house, how will I get to my dog? I wouldn’t be able to function at work thinking something would happen to my dog.”
People have different ways to cope. Vadola tries to put it out of her mind. “I can’t let it get to me,” she says, although she is reminded about the storm every time she goes in the basement to do the laundry. Besides crying as a release, Victor Dolan says, “I try to remember to go on.”
Sharing helps some heal – a coping mechanism that obviously gets my endorsement as a psychologist. “We have a tent on Saturdays where people congregate,” Joe explains. “But they don’t just talk about the state’s buyout. They come to vent, share experiences, and rehash. It gives you an outlet you don’t have.”
Taking action is one of the most effective antidotes to dark feelings triggered by helplessness and hopelessness. Deidre McGrath and her husband Scott founded Beacon of Hope New York Resource Center, after contacting Beacon of Hope NOLA (New Orleans Louisiana), to get suggestions about what they did after Hurricane Katrina. Following that model, they beautified homes, fixed people’s front yards, gave fun workshops for kids, and threw a picnic and parties for seniors.
Vincent Lenza, co-chair of the New York Rising Reconstruction Program specifically for Staten Island, who is Executive Director of the Staten Island Not-for-Profit Association by day, says you have to be adept at navigating various programs. “I hear frustration and anger,” he told me, “But I also hear people who are ready to soldier on… to take the next step, to be proactive, who say, ‘This is the situation and I want solutions’.”
Individuals and community organizations that stepped up to help post-storm continue their activities. That’s heartening. One of these, the LTRO, meets regularly with members from 90 organizations to coordinate recovery by providing financial assistance, supplies, and health and spiritual care to residents in need;
communicating about resources to the community through multi-lingual flyers, fairs and social media; and presenting needs to elected officials and media through letters, meetings, parades and community forums (www.sisandyhelp.org or email
LTRO coordinator Reverend Karen Jackson knows recovery will take time beyond this one-year marker, as she told me, ““We are committed to serve Staten Island to recover from Sandy for the long haul.”
Deidre and Scott McGrath and I read the post-it note suggestions at the station designated for “health and social services.” They called for more services, especially for children, seniors, people with disabilities and single residents; attention to abandoned homes with mold; payment of Medicare bills; and a better communication network.
Like many at the civic meeting, my heart and mind drift back often to the storm trauma one year ago, when I spent nights helping at the distribution center in Miller Field, then in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and then in Far Rockaway. It was so emotional, that it took me a while to process everything and finally put my thoughts together into a journal article, reviewing my personal as well as professional reactions to the compound impact of the storm on emotions, the environment and economics (see: http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/eco.2013.0010?journalCode=eco).
Lessons hit home again about the irony that water, the source of life, can be such a cause of destruction. Personally, I found solace in several ways: remembering Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy whereby in the face of the horror of the holocaust, he still found meaning in life; renewing my philosophy of life based on the psychological principle of Locus of Control that I can control as much as possible but must accept that I cannot control everything; reaffirming that people matter more than possessions and that support of others is a powerful force in recovery.
Community events are healing – a solution I have explored extensively in my recent book, “Living in An Environmentally Traumatized World: Healing Ourselves and Our Planet.” These include memorials, vigils, fairs, and continued attention from media and officials. After destructive floods in Joplin, Missouri, visits from President Obama made survivors feel important and cared about.
After Hurricane Katrina, my colleague Louisiana neuropsychologist Darlyne Nemeth and I conducted anniversary workshops for groups of survivors. The exercises included breaking out of chaos (by enacting dispersing a tight circle), relaxation breathing, imaging power, listing resources, stating dreams and telling others about their personal strengths to get support and reinforcement (see: http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/eco.2013.0006). State flags that were drawn by the groups were donated to the permanent collection of the Cabildo Museum in New Orleans, making the participants feel proud. Such public acknowledgement is a known psychological principle of healing.
Memorials and vigils are being planned for the one-year anniversary of Sandy, listed on websites of LTRO and other local organizations. I know as a psychologist that some people embrace such gatherings as comforting while others prefer privacy.
On the anniversary, October 29th, the LTRO-hosted event in Middle Beach starts at 4 p.m. at the Fountain of the Dolphins on Sand Lane and Father Capodanno Boulevard. Craft activities – for example, Project Hope crisis counselors will facilitate residents to make flags that will be added to the sculpture in the Rockaways – will be followed by a resiliency walk, ending in a free community dinner with giveaways, speeches from elected officials and community organizations, and tables with information about disaster-preparedness and ongoing services. An interfaith service of remembrance starts at 6:30 pm, followed by a candlelight vigil – also happening in other parts of New York and New Jersey.
Joe Herrnkind told me “I don’t want to be at any kind of celebration, or be near any barbecuing on a boardwalk with a band.” He plans to use the day “as a time for reflection.” John Malizia is also going to stay at home, he says, and “pray that it doesn’t happen again.” Scott plans on being home too, with his family and dog. Echoing the sentiments of his friend Victor, he tells me, “If me and him go by the memorial together another time, that’s ok, but I won’t go when other people come to look at my misery.”
Nicole Romano-Levine, a high school teacher who is President of the New Dorp Beach Civic Association, is co-organizing the local memorial at Cedar Grove Avenue and Topping Street. The “remembrance” will feature singing the Star Spangled Banner and unveiling a plaque engraved, “For those who died and those who survived.” With impressive psychological insight, she expresses the benefits of public memorials that I have written about extensively when she says, “Even though people still have hardships and don’t feel better a year later, what with nightmares and panic every time it rains, we can celebrate our strengths and the fact that we survived.”
Appreciating each other matters. As Nicole says, “We can still remind ourselves how wonderful people can be even in times of crisis.”
Togetherness is healing. As Reverend Jackson says, “It’s about neighbors helping neighbors, coming together to celebrate the new unity we’ve seen in the aftermath of the disaster.”
Romano-Levine echoes that sentiment. “If we stick together and fight the good fight together, for what we want and what we need, we have a fighting chance. There are things we can do together that can’t do by ourselves.”
Her words express well the psychological theme of resilience. “I hope people who come to the event will walk away feeling whole and having some kind of peace.”
Tips on how to prepare for the anniversary of Sandy:Prepare for emotional reactions. Start acknowledging feelings now, in advance, to prevent overwhelm on the actual date. Change you mind anytime, up to the event and on the day.
- Expect emotions. These can range from feeling “nothing” – which can be either denial or a way to cope with overwhelming dread – to having symptoms like extreme distress, haunting memories and nightmares, and being angry, irritable or depressed.
- Recognize that the trauma of the storm can trigger reactions from past upsets or losses, whether large or small – from frustration over lingering chores to death of a loved one.
- Respect differences in coping styles. Talk about your experiences if sharing is your style. If not, that’s ok; don’t force feelings. From my many years of working with the Hermann Whole Brain model (www.hbdi.com) and counseling couples after disaster, I know that some people embrace expression for relief, while others prefer containing feelings, staying busy, tackling to-do lists or putting the event out of their mind. Neither style is better or worse, but accept differences. A more talkative partner should seek others with whom to share; and more silent ones should consider listening a bit more.
- Plan ahead. Decide with whom you will spend the day, and what you will do. Make necessary phone calls or send emails or texts. Arrange activities to ease distress, whether it’s a quiet evening at home, joining a public gathering or distracting yourself with mundane (or self-gratifying) tasks like cleaning out your garage or computer files. Find out about local events, to which everyone is invited.
- Expect that attending a public memorial can be cathartic or emotionally charged. Take off work the day after if you need to.
- Reach out to others you know who may have experienced similar disasters, including those who went through storms or floods in other states. Read the heirloom-quality book that came out right after the storm, “Hurricane Sandy: The storm that changed Staten Island” edited by Claire Regan of the Staten Island Advance, for inspiration about survivor’s indomitable spirit. http://www.silive.com/news/index.ssf/2013/03/staten_island_advance_book_now.html. A new edition will be available for the anniversary.
- Take action. Since practical steps salves upset, connect with others for support and persist in contacting organizations, agencies, services, advocates and politicians about ongoing problems and needs. For housing or small business assistance in New York City, contact 311 or visit nyc.gov. For information and a meetings schedule (open to the public) for the NY Rising Community Reconstruction Program, visit www.nyrisingcommunities.com. The New York City Regional Lead, Alex T. Zablocki, a Tottenville resident, is reachable at (212) 480-2377 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also contact the regional representative for Governor Cuomo, Paul Duffy, at (347) 215-1825 and register suggestions on the website www.stormrecovery.ny.gov.
- Do what you need to take care of your physical needs. Relax and be sure to exercise and eat properly.
- Take care of spiritual needs. Reach out to community religious or spiritual organizations.
- Review any positive outcomes. How has life changed for the better? How is the glass half full instead of half empty? How has your sorrow been a pathway to wisdom? According to the psychological principle of post-traumatic growth, surviving a trauma can lead to new awareness, making needed changes (like expressing more love or ending a toxic relationship or job) and recognizing new personal strengths, opportunities, skills and meaning in life. See my video about Sandy Recovery
- Be prepared for the future. Brainstorm what can be done to prevent being affected as severely by another possible natural disaster or traumatic event.
- Make children feel safe and secure. Be attentive to reactions children will undoubtedly have when exposed to the news about the anniversary. Be calm in your own reactions; allow them to express their memories; be alert to symptoms like nightmares, anxiety, acting out, eating and sleeping problems, and fears about leaving the house or being left alone.
- Seek psychological help if the distress is intense and long-lasting. While Dr. Dolan said, “I don’t need therapy, I need my house!” others can benefit from professional counseling. Organizations offering this help include Project Hope, Jewish Board of Family Services, Lutheran Family Services, the Staten Island Mental Health Society and community and religious centers. The Visiting Nurse Service of New York is offering a free program to treat post-disaster distress symptoms for Superstorm Sandy survivors; contact Kerry A. Symon, Psy.D., at 1-718-888-6955 or email: Kerry.email@example.com. Also, to participate in a planned study of cognitive aftereffects of the storm with a complimentary assessment, contact SandyRecoveryStudy@gmail.com.
- Cherish loved ones. Express your caring and do one nice thing for your family, friends, pets, and neighbors.
After the anniversary day, be prepared for lingering emotions and the need to take ongoing action to get practical issues solved. The community members at the civic meeting know that their individual mourning, as well as lobbying and collective action, is an ongoing process.
Dr. Judy Kuriansky, Ph.D. is best known publicly for hosting the popular radio advice show “LovePhones” on Z100 for years, and her many appearances on television shows. She is an internationally known clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. from NYU, currently on the faculty at Columbia University Teachers College and an honorary professor at the Peking University Health Sciences Center in China. A humanitarian, she is an NGO representative at the United Nations; serves on the board of U.S. Doctors for Africa; and has co-founded
a camp for girls empowerment in Africa as well as the Global Kids Connect Project for kids in Haiti, Japan and Africa, and the band called the Stand Up for Peace Project. She has provided psychological first aide after many disasters including 9’11 and the Sandy Hook school shootings, and after earthquakes in San Francisco, Australia, Haiti and China, the tsunamis in Sri Lanka and Japan, and hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. Her many books include “The Complete Idiots Guide to A Healthy Relationship:” “31 Things to Raise a Child’s Self Esteem” and “Living in an Environmentally Traumatized World: Healing Ourselves and Our Planet.” An award-winning journalist, she is regularly comments on news and relationships for media worldwide including CNN and CCTV in China, newspapers and Internet sites. See her blog (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/judy-kuriansky-phd/) columns (http://www.bottomlinepublications.com/expert/45-dr-judy-kuriansky) website www.DrJudy.com.