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When disaster strikes twice: Helping Jersey shore residents cope

Heather Rudow October 11, 2013

(Kristi Funderburk/The Asbury Park Press/AP)

(Kristi Funderburk/The Asbury Park Press/AP)

Nearly a year ago, historic “superstorm” Hurricane Sandy tore up the East Coast, claiming at least 117 lives in the U.S. and 69 more in Canada and the Caribbean, leaving an unthinkable path of destruction in its wake.

New Jersey was especially hard-hit: half of the city of Hoboken flooded, communities all up and down the shore sustained significant damage and, at one point, more than 2.6 million residents were without power. At least 34 people were killed in the state, and damages have been estimated at $29.4 billion.

In the town of Seaside Heights, the storm reduced its boardwalk from a famed tourist attraction to piles of wood and wrecked amusement park rides. Perhaps no image was more representative of the destruction than the now-iconic photo of Seaside’s JetStar roller coaster rolling out with the tide.

But just as life for those N.J. residents was perhaps returning to normal, a massive fire erupted along the Seaside Heights and Seaside Park boardwalks on Sept. 12, destroying more than 50 businesses. Adding insult to injury, it was revealed that the fire was caused by damage in electrical wiring under the boardwalk and subfloor that had first been compromised by flooding from Hurricane Sandy.

Now, those N.J. residents are left to deal with the first anniversary of the hurricane, compounded by the destruction of the recent fire.

On the anniversaries of disasters, an “anniversary effect” or “anniversary reaction” can impact primary survivors — those who directly experienced the disaster — and secondary survivors, or those who indirectly experienced the disaster through TV and other media outlets.

Karin Jordan, founder of the American Counseling Association’s Traumatology Interest Network, notes that anniversaries of disasters can already be difficult for survivors to process; adding another trauma or disaster event can make coping during this time even more difficult.

“These dates can mark a time of heightened vulnerability and psychological impact,” Jordan explains. “Anniversaries are difficult for disaster survivors as they are often a time of remembering the losses and rekindling the sadness, fear, anxiety and stress. Experiencing multiple disasters can be difficult and puts survivors at higher risk of having trouble dealing with the disaster event’s anniversaries.”

Jordan says traumatic events such as Hurricane Sandy tend to have a “desensitizing effect on the acquisition of coping skills for later disasters. For example, the fire [that] destroyed New Jersey’s boardwalk after a furious rebuilding effort subsequent to Hurricane Sandy left some of the populace with a sense of hopelessness, sadness and a range of other emotions, and [wondering] ‘Haven’t we gone through enough? What is going to happen next?’”

Juneau Mahan Gary, a counselor educator at Kean University, can personally attest to this. Gary, a member of the New Jersey Counseling Association, a state branch of ACA, lives off New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay, across the water from where the fire took place.

“From my deck, I can look at Seaside Heights, so I can see it every day,” says Gary, a N.J. native. “On that particular day, I was not home, but my husband and my neighbors were able to see the smoke rising from Seaside Heights.”

When Gary saw the fire and its destruction on TV, she felt “overwhelmed and speechless. My brain just couldn’t absorb what I was seeing, it was that overwhelming.”

Due to the fire’s massive size and a lack of working hydrants nearby, firefighters even pumped water out of Barnegat Bay to fight the flames. Watching the efforts upon returning home, Gary and her neighbors felt “sadness, disbelief and empathy.”

“We felt helpless that night,” she recalls.

However, Gary and fellow residents have been feeling this way for nearly a year.

“Even before the fire occurred, we still have, just a half mile from me, houses that are condemned, either because of the major destruction or the mold,” she says. “Some people are still dislocated, there are a number of houses that are for sale and some will [mention] hurricane damage. I suspect the houses are for sale because owners can’t make sufficient repairs.”

She describes it as a “double-whammy” for residents.

Jane Webber, former president of the New Jersey Counseling Association, says the sheer force of the blaze makes for an especially difficult recovery.

“Although the unpredictability and danger of hurricanes and floods are part of Jersey shore life, no one was prepared for the shock of the boardwalk inferno,” says Webber, a counselor in private practice and adjunct professor of counselor education at Kean University. “The Seaside Park fire was intense and terrifying, spreading rapidly to Seaside Heights, while residents and business owners heroically tried to protect buildings even after their own stores burned.”

Webber, a member of the ACA Crisis Response Planning Task Force and co-editor of the second and third editions of Terrorism, Trauma and Tragedies: A Counselor’s Guide to Preparing and Responding, says now is a “critical time for outreach counselors to support clients and to be available for those residents who may not have needed assistance after Sandy. The terrifying fire and the financial losses added to Sandy’s toll, testing our hope and endurance when the reservoir of resources has been depleted.”

Jordan agrees, recommending that counselors follow a treatment plan that includes “a structured interview to get a better understanding of the client’s trauma exposure, such as the magnitude, duration, whether they are an imminent risk to their self or others, previous trauma experiences, present level of functioning and their present support system.”

The goal of treatment, she says, is helping clients to “develop a cognitive frame of his or her own feelings, emotions and behaviors in order to be able to discriminate between disaster triggers and reality.”

The client needs to be supported in finding the appropriate language to describe the experience “so they can remember what happened and when the disaster struck without being emotionally charged and experiencing the trauma all over again,” with the ultimate goal of “making the trauma memory like any other memory through reconstructing [it] into a meaningful narrative.”

Webber finds active interventions to be helpful in lowering clients’ anxiety levels and suggests “taking a walk on the beach together or talking with clients as they work on repairs. Search the beach together for a worry stone to hold when they are feeling over-stressed. Decide together on one task to tackle and list steps and progress dates on the calendar to reduce confusion and stress when so much needs to be done.”

Gary says it’s important for counselors to know of referral sources and support groups providing free and low-cost services. Also important, she says, is for counselors themselves to offer pro-bono services for individuals and groups.

“Consult with local mental health agencies and schools to offer or co-sponsor psychoeducation sessions, counseling or special clinical supervision and/or consultation to mental health staff who work with affected clients,” Gary adds.

New Jersey Hope and Healing, a N.J. Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services-sponsored crisis organization, is a good place to start, Gary says. In addition, Gary created a free repository of websites that school counselors and school personnel can use to assist students.

It’s a counselor’s role to educate survivors and clients about common anniversary reactions and provide information for those who are not directly impacted by the disaster, Gary says.

It is also up to counselors living in affected areas to make sure they are in the appropriate mindset to assist others.

“Seek clinical or peer supervision or personal counseling as necessary,” Gary says. “Exercise, eat healthy, get rest, set limits and [learn to] say ‘no.’ Practice counselor self-care.”

Gary, a certified disaster response crisis counselor for the state of New Jersey, had to assess her emotional well-being when the hurricane hit.

“[Though] not significant, we suffered damage to our house,” she recalls, “and at that point, I knew I was too raw to help anyone. Those first two months, I needed to take care of myself and my surroundings. You need to … do your own self-assessment and ask, ‘Am I strong enough and ready to help someone?’”

Webber says counselors should be alert to changes in survivors’ behaviors and moods and whether “day-to-day tasks become more difficult or insurmountable. Watch for signs of depression, hopelessness or anxiety.”

Gary, Webber and Jordan say that counselors should be on the look out for some of the following reactions:

  • Denial of any emotional impact
  • Avoidance of discussing the hurricane or the fire
  • Inability to recall the event
  • Flashbacks and intrusive recall of the event
  • Anxiety, depression, fear that another hurricane or fire might happen
  • Depression or feeling easily overwhelmed
  • Anger over the loss of people, property and community
  • Changes in appetite (overeating or inability to eat)
  • Substance abuse and self medication
  • Nightmares and other sleeping problems

The difference between recovering from a natural disaster as opposed to man-made trauma is that, unlike other trauma, natural disasters do not typically involve human error.

“Although we are unable to change the course of natural events, we are spared the terror inflicted by mass violence,” Webber says. “As superstorm Sandy roared through towns, survivors were determined to outlast nature’s fury, comforted by the courage and compassion of neighbors who protected them from the hurricane’s path. On the anniversary, many will remember how they lived through Sandy, sharing stories of survival and affirming the resilience of the human spirit to endure the elements.”

Webber, a N.J. native who remembers riding her bike along the Seaside Heights boardwalk and working there as a teenager, says the determination and optimism of the state’s residents will help them cope.

“Residents pledge not to let this latest tragedy block the Jersey shore recovery,” she says. “The resilience and commitment of the community will sustain them to be ready for Memorial Day’s beach opening next year.”

 Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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