Late summer saw several major hurricanes touch the United States, and the impact of those storms was devastating. Whenever an impending hurricane is described as powerful (as these were), we tend to tune in for predictions of the storm’s path, ongoing coverage as it makes landfall and, finally, initial assessments of the resulting damage. And then, we often tune out.
But the real power that we should be tuning in for is the incredible resilience of the people who begin cleaning up and putting their lives back together as the winds die down. Counselors are there to witness that power because they are consistently part of response and recovery efforts following major disasters.
The American Counseling Association has partnered with the American Red Cross for years, helping to coordinate the disaster mental health response to major storms. The American Red Cross has volunteers in communities nationwide. Many people don’t know that the majority of what the Red Cross responds to is house fires in our own communities. When a major disaster strikes, the Red Cross brings in volunteers from its chapters across the country; if the scope of the disaster is particularly large, the Red Cross also asks for ACA members who are licensed to respond. Hurricane Irma was a massive storm that tracked through the Caribbean and then slowly moved up through Florida. I was scheduled to be in Florida for the American Rehabilitation Counseling Association’s 60th anniversary conference, and I asked our staff to see if I could arrange a disaster mental health deployment with the Red Cross for the following week. It was a powerful experience.
Disaster mental health deployments with the American Red Cross are typically at least nine days long, including travel days. I arrived at the headquarters in Orlando and spent the first day checking in with local shelters. The next day, we traveled south to where the storm had made landfall. For the next three days, I worked 10- to 12-hour shifts in a hurricane shelter that housed everyone, from infants to the elderly; families, couples and individuals; dogs, cats and birds. Some of the shelter staff had been there for more than a week and had been deployed in advance of the storm. Those heroes rode out the storm in evacuation shelters, along with the people they had been sent there to serve.
Our tasks in the shelter involved crisis counseling, psychological first aid, planning for moving forward, case management, hand-holding, you name it. The remainder of the week we did community outreach, heading farther south into communities that were even harder hit and even more disadvantaged. The needs were incredible, but the resilience of those survivors was humbling.
I have done disaster mental health work before, most notably at Virginia Tech following the shootings on our campus in 2007. I describe that work as the hardest, most important work I have ever done. This deployment is a close second. To those of you who have also served with the Red Cross: Thank you. Although there were many volunteers in Florida from allied professions, about half of the disaster mental health volunteers I met were counselors. We show up when people need us, we are willing to go into the community and meet people where they are, and the work we do changes lives.
We need more counselors to get connected with the Red Cross, to serve in their communities and perhaps to serve in a national deployment. Storms are powerful, but the work you do is even more powerful. And we need you. Go to redcross.org/become-a-disaster-mental-health-volunteer for more information.