Outside View: Superstorm Sandy survivors still suffer a year later

By JUDY KURIANSKY, UPI Outside View Commentator  |  Oct. 29, 2013 at 12:03 AM
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NEW YORK, Oct. 29 (UPI) -- A year after devastating Superstorm Sandy struck the New York-New Jersey area, emotions are still raw.

As a psychologist who has provided mental health first aid after many disasters worldwide, I'm as frustrated and angry as many survivors at the too-slow recovery and sad so many people are still suffering.

"One year later, nothing has been done and the stress has just gotten worse," Debi Vadola told me at a community hearing.

As president of the Midland Beach Civic Association on the east-central shore of the hard-hit New York City borough of Staten Island, Vadola said she hears many fellow residents complain, "There is still so much frustration with FEMA, insurance companies and everything."

FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is aiding in disaster-relief efforts.

Vadola even blames her husband's heart attack, which happened a few months after the storm, on the worry he had about flood-insurance premiums costing $20,000 and his realization that their house was no longer worth anything.

Staten Island resident Deirdre McGrath said she regularly relives the storm's damage and the gutting of her house.

Still on anti-anxiety drugs, her panic attacks are still so severe, she said she worries, "I don't know how I would be without the medication."

Contrary to gender-bias that women suffer emotionally more than men, the anniversary of the storm that killed 44 people in New York City doesn't escape males.

Victor Dolan, a Staten Island chiropractor, told me he cries a lot when he thinks about how Sandy claimed the house he made handicapped-accessible for his mother and about his neighbor across the street who died.

Such emotions are typical of anniversary reactions -- re-experiencing feelings on the marker date of a meaningful event -- whether as happy as a wedding or birth or as tragic as divorce, dire diagnosis or death.

Pat Kane, a nurse and co-chairwoman of the Staten Island Community and Interfaith Long-Term Recovery Organization, told me she's observed many cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Whenever we do health fairs, some people walk listlessly, and whenever Sandy is brought up, some people cry," she said.

Cognitive effects, including confusion, memory lapses and attention deficits, also linger. Sandy survivor Joe Herrnkind stops in the middle of sentences while talking to me, admitting, "I get short-term memory loss from the stress."

Such problems are justified and expected.

Trauma research indicates stages include shock, denial, phases of sadness and anger, and eventually acceptance and resolution. But emotions can persist long-term, as for Vietnam veterans and troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The aftershock of natural disasters is similar to post-war and post-terrorism.

Problems are also reality-based, particularly about money, given that mortgages on still-unlivable homes must be paid, workers are still without jobs, mom-and-pop shops are still shut down and compensation from agencies is insufficient.

With so many natural disasters throughout the United States -- from the recent floods in Colorado and mudslides in North Carolina to the wildfires in California and tornadoes through the Great Plains -- you'd think we'd know enough to be prepared and act quickly for recovery in all sectors, from housing to mental health.

Dolan echoes that view.

"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," he said. "Where's the cookbook on recovery?"

But some psychological good comes out of bad -- a phenomenon known as post-traumatic growth, the opposite of PTSD.

For instance, some couples I've counseled after disasters have decided to ditch a toxic relationship, saying, "Life is too short -- there's no sense sticking to such arguing and abuse."

At the same time, some couples after Sandy got closer, more romantic and more considerate of each other, as I've documented in a video, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2W1OUHH8IPA.

Indeed, community residents can become empowered. McGrath and her husband Scott started Beacon of Hope New York, modeled after a program in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, rebuilding homes, bringing supplies and making a picnic for seniors.

Another bone of contention regards media attention.

Sandy's first anniversary is getting wide news replays of floods, wiped-out homes, washed-out beaches and people recounting horrors.

Some may welcome less coverage over the years but I've personally been upset that the 12th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, and the ninth anniversary of the 2004 tsunami that struck Indonesia and neighboring countries passed relatively quietly.

By contrast, I wanted to reconnect with first responders I worked with at Ground Zero and with Sri Lankan parents I counseled whose children were washed away to death in the sea.

Some Sandy survivors eschew not only media attention but memorials, not wanting to "celebrate misery or be ogled by onlookers," while others gain from group support. After my experience helping in Staten Island, I'll go to the vigil and ceremony.

Going forward, I encourage survivors to take practical steps to soothe upset.

Persist in contacting organizations, agencies, services, advocates and politicians about ongoing problems and needs. I commend Gov. Andrew Cuomo's New York Rising Community Reconstruction Program for holding community meetings and seeking community input.

For the anniversary, I advise preparing for, and accepting, emotions on the day, as well as long-lasting reactions from this event or even past unrelated traumas.

My recommendation: Respect your coping style to talk about the event or to avoid sadness. Take care of your physical, emotional and spiritual needs.

"Kids need extra comforting," said Staten Island Community Center Director of Day Care Ella Fridman.

Seek psychological help if the distress is intense and long-lasting. While Dolan said, "I don't need therapy, I need my house!" others can benefit from professional counseling.


(Judy Kuriansky, Ph.D., is a New York clinical psychologist at Columbia University Teachers College and chairwoman of the Psychology Coalition at the United Nations. She has been a mental-health first responder after disasters in Haiti, China, Japan and Australia as well as after hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. Her most recent book is "Living in an Environmentally Traumatized World: Healing Ourselves and Our Planet.")


(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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