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The gifts of volunteering as a disaster mental health counselor

By Suzanne A. Whitehead February 19, 2019

I was presenting at the Western Association for Counselor Education and Supervision Conference in Santa Rosa, California, on the evening of Nov. 8, 2018, when the urgent call came. The American Red Cross was frantically looking for certified disaster mental health counselors to help with what appeared that it might become a large disaster due to the wildfires that had sprung up near the areas of Chico and Paradise, California. (This would later be named the Camp Fire.) I responded that I could be there on Nov. 11 to help out as much as possible. I had been watching the news reports while at the conference, and I could tell the situation was growing dire.

As I left the conference, being held about an hour west of the fires, that Saturday evening, the acrid smoke filled the air and pellets of ash hit the roof and sides of my car as I made my way south. I live in the Central Valley of California, about 2.5 hours south of the fires and Santa Rosa. All the way home, the smoke lingered in the air like a very dense fog, yet I knew it was far worse.

I raced back to Sacramento (1.5 hours north) the next morning to go to the American Red Cross headquarters to get my assignment. The fires had been raging and spreading for more than 3 days at that point. The skies above were thick with smoke, and I wondered what I might be getting myself into.

A decimated landscape along Highway 33 in Ojai, California after recent wildfires.

As I approached the Red Cross headquarters, I encountered a scene of organized chaos. I had an appointment with our area chief, but finding her took some time. When we finally met, she ushered me into a side office and gave me an assignment to one of the nine shelters opened in the fire areas. She also gave me several breathing masks, some bottled water and a “Go with God” message. There was no time for idle chatter.

I swallowed hard and drove the extra hour north. As I progressed, I couldn’t help noticing that fewer and fewer cars were headed toward the wildfire areas; many, many more were leaving. I had volunteered with the Red Cross along the Gulf Coast for two weeks in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. After that experience, I also served as a disaster mental health volunteer in the wake of several local disasters on the East Coast, where I lived at the time. So, I already knew what to expect when it came to “shelter life,” but at the same time, I also was aware that each disaster — and each set of life circumstances — is unique. I braced myself for the possibilities, knowing I had to be strong.

 

In the shelter

As I approached the shelter, I again encountered organized chaos. The air was sooty and couldn’t be escaped, either in your car or in the buildings. I was stationed at an old fairground that had been turned into a makeshift shelter. A large building housed a common area, a kitchen and a gymnasium that had been turned into the sleeping quarters. There were two sets of bathrooms, but they featured cold water only – and no shower facilities. For showers, the Red Cross had placed trailers outside that contained three showers on each side for the “residents” to use. There were also dozens of people staying in their cars, in tents, in campers and in recreational vehicles, all surrounding the main shelter. These were the survivors who had escaped with their animals but were not allowed to bring them into the shelter.

As I entered the main hall, crowds were everywhere, lining up to get food, clothing, toiletries, diapers, wipes, supplies and water. I could hear the sense of panic and distress in the voices around me, and the looks on the survivors’ faces told of their immense grief and shock. I made my way over to where the two other disaster mental health counselors were located, inside the gym turned sleeping quarters. They filled me in on some of their areas of concern — and the individuals whom they were concerned about. Every cot was filled, with the distance between each being about 2 feet. My disaster mental health colleagues thought we had in excess of 125 survivors inside. They estimated at least another 75 or so people outside. I knew that we had our hands full because the need was tremendous.

By Nov. 11, the disaster had grown to a Level 5, one of the highest levels the Red Cross declares. It would later grow to a Level 7, the highest level possible, based on loss of life, the number of people affected, duration and overall cost. I started mingling throughout the crowd and saw a tremendous outpouring of distress. Many survivors were simply “walking wounded,” too much in shock to say much and still just trying to absorb all that had happened to them. Many asked me to help them find their loved ones; others cried over the fear that they had lost their precious pets.

I quickly found the list of referrals and resources to hand these survivors, but many didn’t even have a phone or the numbers of loved ones to call. The fires had spread like no one could remember, raging at their backs as they tried to flee. They had time to gather little beyond the clothes they wore. They shared stories of racing through the burning brush with the flames licking their cars as they fled.

Others spoke of quickly abandoning their vehicles when they got stuck in a standstill traffic jam on the few small roads that led to their once beautiful towns. They left their cars with few or no belongings, running along streets, paths and through the forests to escape on foot. When they spoke, their eyes lit up with fear, as if reliving the nightmare.

 

Personal encounters

You do a lot of psychological first aid as a disaster mental health volunteer in the first few days after a disaster. You mentally sort out those who seem to be coping, albeit shakily perhaps; those who don’t talk at all, keeping it bottled inside; and those who are clearly in great distress. You look for support systems of any kind and try to surround them with those who still have some “reserves” to give.

I encountered people from every walk of life during those first few days in the shelter, including those who were desperately poor to begin with. The stories of rescues and heroism made my heart skip, reveling at the strength of the human spirit. There were so many older adults, with walkers and wheelchairs, frightened and seemingly all alone. They struggled to remember phone numbers, addresses and the medications they needed — all common artifacts of trauma and disaster situations. We were eternally blessed at our shelter with several wonderful nurses on staff and a physician. They were a godsend, especially when the norovirus invaded the shelter a few days later. It wasn’t the best time to try to quarantine vast amounts of people, and yet there we were.

For many, the shelter offered a brief respite as they gathered their senses and financial resources, decided which relative or friend to travel to, and filled their gas tanks or purchased their plane tickets. The main hall meeting room was filled to capacity at meal times. The food was prepared at a central location in town and transported to all the shelters via the huge Red Cross emergency response vehicles.

People of all walks of life slowly began to reach out to one another; donations of food, clothing and supplies poured in; and no one was turned away. Friendships began to emerge by the fifth day, and a few smiles began to peer through the depression. The wildfires were still raging, and everyone instantly stopped what they were doing when the fire marshals came in each day to give their updates and reports. You still couldn’t go outside safely without a breathing mask on, and by this point, the acrid smoke and soot were in our hair, clothing and lungs.

And so it went. The days went by with little word about the survivors’ homes. There was one small television in the gym/living quarters, and the “residents” huddled there whenever a news report came on. I began making mental notes of the individuals I was most worried about: the young man who was clearly going through withdrawal of some kind; the older adult women with walkers and canes who were frightened easily and tired quickly; the caring gentleman who reached out to others but quickly escalated to outbursts of anger when he felt distrust; the man recovering from a recent stroke and estranged from his family, wishing now that it wasn’t so.

There were stories of heartache, pain, remorse, forgiveness, bravery, heroism and hope. All the while, I knew that this could happen to any one of us, in a heartbeat. When these people had awoken that fateful morning, they had no warning of the impending doom, no way to prepare and just barely enough time to get out of harm’s way. The fragileness of humanity struck me as I tried my best to help those in dire need. Given the same circumstances, I wondered how I would react.

 

What’s left behind

By the following weekend, Nov. 17, the only residents left in the shelter were the truly needy. These were the poor souls who had lost everything in the fires — they had no resources, no home owners insurance, nowhere to go, no one to go to. A feeling of great malaise and sadness had come over the group, and we did our best to try to restore hope.

It was a normal process and cycle, one I had witnessed after Hurricane Katrina so many years prior, and I was mentally prepared for it. However, these are human lives you are working with, and to say it doesn’t pull at your very soul would be a lie. People wanted and deserved answers, yet few were forthcoming because it was deemed unsafe to return to what remained of their homes.

The fires were mostly contained by this point; the grizzly, heart-wrenching job of finding the missing was well underway. The numbers feared missing had gone from an early count of 20 or so to well over 800, and then back down to less than 100 eventually. The residents cried at every news update and mourned the loss of their dear pets much more than the loss of belongings. Repeating their stories of survival to all who would listen was therapeutic and helped to alleviate some of the general malaise. It was a necessary element for returning to any sense of “normalcy.”

Nov. 18 arrived, and I had to return home, 2.5 hours south. I am a counselor educator, and my university had been closed for several days due to the horrid air conditions; we would remain closed until after Thanksgiving. Yet, there these people remained, trapped in a place they could not leave.

I felt great sadness as I left the shelter that evening to return to my home. I was reminded again and again of how very fortunate I am in life, and I felt blessed that I could be there to give solace to a few dear souls. I was not able to get the smell of smoke out of my hair and clothes for days — and out of my car for weeks — yet I was the supremely fortunate one.

It is so very true that disasters bring out the very best and the very worst in people. I chose to focus on the very best, and I witnessed it over and over. Just as when I deployed with Hurricane Katrina, I learned so very much about myself on this assignment. As a disaster mental health volunteer, you dig deep into your soul and discover what is truly important in this life. Just as with my Katrina experience, I received so many thank-you’s and bless-you’s this time that I was humbled to my core. The survivors told me I had given them so very much, but especially a sense that someone deeply cared about their plight. I am truly the lucky one, however, because giving our time and talents is such a precious gift to share.

The crisis of the wildfires in Northern California has now left the airwaves, but it still looms large. The American Red Cross continues to request assistance there; the need will go on for months, if not years, as the towns of Chico and Paradise try to rebuild.

If I can do anything now, it is to encourage professional counselors to volunteer with the American Red Cross. The trainings are easy, and most can be completed at your own time and pace. The need is tremendous because there is no shortage of disasters in our world. To volunteer, you need to be a clinical mental health counselor or a certified/credentialed/licensed school counselor. It just may be the most precious gift of your lifetime to give, and I can’t encourage you enough.

 

 

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Suzanne A. Whitehead is the program coordinator and an assistant professor of counselor education at California State University, Stanislaus. She is a licensed mental health counselor, national certified counselor and licensed addiction counselor. She has volunteered with the American Red Cross since 2005. Contact her at swhitehead1@csustan.edu.

 

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ACA Disaster Mental Health webpage: counseling.org/knowledge-center/trauma-disaster

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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