Last year, on October 29, Hurricane Sandy flooded my one-story Cape Cod home in Long Beach, New York with four and a half feet of seawater contaminated by raw sewage. I spent the night in the crawl space which I euphemistically referred to as "the attic." Since its construction in 1949, the house had never flooded, despite its proximity to the Reynolds Channel about 80 yards to the north.
Like most of my neighbors, I chose to stay home. In 2011, many had evacuated for Hurricane Irene, only to find their homes bone-dry when they returned. Most of us expected that Sandy would be a little bit wetter than Irene.
When the first gush of water unzipped the back wall, I shifted into "observer" mode. Twenty years in the news business can do that to you. It was like standing in a control room during a major news event. Your peripheral awareness expands so that you can sense what's happening all around you. The quieter and more centered you are, the faster you can jump in as needed. My second career, as a psychotherapist specializing in helping people through traumatic events also trained me to stay calm, even when the refrigerator and washing machine were bobbing around like rubber duckies.
Descending from the attic on the morning of October 30 to find my floor covered in oily sludge and feces smearing the plaster walls put me in a state of shock. Trying his cell phone, my boyfriend cautiously stepped through the mud that spilled with the tropical plants we had retrieved from the garden. There was no cell signal. In the street, neighbors were crying on each other's shoulders, "What do we do now?" I gave away two emergency radios, four gallons of water and some candles. When my friend, who lived across the street, discovered that her stove worked, she poured some of the water I had given her into two cups and brought over hot tea. Overwhelmed by such pure generosity, I burst into tears. That was the last time I cried.
The next few days are a blur. Our cell phones began to send and receive texts but the cell phone chargers that I had stored in the cars for emergencies were useless. So were the cars. We were stranded. As we approached one neighbor whose S.U.V. was functional, we asked if we could charge our cell phones. She screamed, "No! Go away! I only have enough for myself." Later that evening, a man we had never met offered to take our cell phones and charge them overnight. We couldn't believe it! Someone whom we had never met was offering a lifeline! Whoever you are, you have our heartfelt thanks forever! I couldn't help noticing the extremes: People default to profound generosity or Lord of the Flies. I thought back to people whom I had met in Third World countries who looked at life with grace and serenity despite living without indoor plumbing and television. Maybe their values gave them that equanimity in the midst of catastrophe which I wished I could model. Especially when FEMA and the insurance adjuster told me that my house was fine.
"Lady, your walls didn't blow out like a Hurricane Katrina house. It wasn't knocked off the foundation. And your roof is solid," the FEMA adjuster said. The adjuster for my flood insurance policy told me, "They don't make houses as strong as this anymore. You have to rebuild."
That was the moment I got swept down the rabbit hole. Up to that point, I had assumed the insurance company would settle for the replacement value of the property. But the first three letters of "assume" are a.s.s. And that's what I was.
The prospect of rebuilding in what was now a high-risk flood zone was more upsetting than the flood had been. I had to walk away. I would tell the bank that I had a mortgage but it was based on my having a house and since I didn't have a house, "Sayonara." In my mind I changed my name and disappeared into a self-created witness protection program where I worked off the books and lived in a friend's basement. (During my month-long sojourn as a FEMA refugee, I spent a week in my friends' Brooklyn basement.) But I was too compliant, too middle-class to walk away. There would be hundreds of times ahead when I would regret that decision. But sometimes the most important turning points in life are those things we decide not to do.
Dazed and scared, I joined the ranks of more than one million homeowners along the coast who were plunged into the chaos of trying to figure out what to do while were still in a state of shock. Nobody around me had any idea. Fortunately, my friends of 20 years, Carol and Sandy Denicker of Carosan Contracting Corp., took over the painful task of communicating with the insurance company. Luckier than most, we were funded to rebuild. But a minefield of administrative betrayals, lies and bureaucratic runarounds lay just around the corner.
Last November, as I walked through the ruins of my home town, talking to people, I couldn't help but notice two predominant facial expressions. Each person I passed looked like he was going to burst into tears or she was going to pick up an AK-47 and go postal. And with each sad smile, I found my own broken soul mirrored back to me as we walked past each other.
Our community was blessed with volunteers -- first responders, evangelical groups from down south and students. Though I could not tear out sheet rock, I could offer to help with the heavy emotional lifting. Having led a support group for teenagers whose fathers were killed in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, I knew that those who were wandering around in pain and isolation needed a safe place to share their experiences and emotions. As a member of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (I.C.I.S.F.), I knew how important it was to start talking right away. Information about self-care is the first line of defense against post-traumatic stress disorder. I sent a proposal with my C.V. and references to the city manager's office. The City of Long Beach generously offered the courtroom for a free weekly support group. We have been meeting for nearly a year.
People frequently ask how it's possible for me to lead such a group, given my circumstances. What I have found over the past two decades is that people who are traumatized are often judged by someone who not experienced traumatic loss. This firsthand experience gives me "street cred" in the same way that the most effect drug counselor is herself a former addict.
It has been my privilege to be here for those whose struggles have been forgotten by the media and the world-at-large. Many in our community are still displaced because they did not receive the funds they need to rebuild their homes. Many will lose their homes or go bankrupt. Others are living in rentals infested with mold. Their hearts have been broken by charities that promised help and not delivered any. FEMA, the Small Business Administration, the banks and other institutions that were supposed to help have treated victims like criminals and denied them support. (According to I.C.I.S.F., administrative betrayal can add another layer of trauma.)
While the media will celebrate the feel-good stories of the first anniversary, it does not mean that the healing process if over. Healing after Hurricane Katrina is a process that is still going on six years later. Psychiatrist Anne Redelfs, author of The Awakening Storm, is a Katrina survivor.
The first year, we were pretty much in shock, taking care of mundane things like insurance, FEMA applications, getting loans. It was only when things started falling into place that many people became aware that they were grief stricken, furious or bewildered. They didn't begin to grieve until after the first year.
With this in mind, I asked my group about what Hurricane Sandy has taught us so far:
1. You can never have too many flashlights. Or water. Or blankets. Make sure your stock of emergency supplies is up-to-date, especially those batteries. When it comes to expecting the unexpected, a good flashlight will never let you down.
2. People whom you do not know will help you. Those who know you best may not. It is a sad truth that sometimes those closest to you will be the first to shut you out. The betrayal will feel like a knife ripping through your heart. You may never again want to speak to your mother, father, sibling, best friend, cousin or partner. When someone close to you sees your loss and your pain, it triggers a feeling of helplessness. As Americans, we hate feeling helpless. Realizing that they, too, could go through a traumatic event can trigger anger. "People who react with insensitivity are often people who have their own PTSD issues that are unresolved," says Dr. Anne Redelfs. That might not help you feel less betrayed in the moment, but somewhere down the road it could be useful to have this understanding.
3. When "normal" gets ripped out from under you, the world is a very different place.
When you find yourself spending seven hours a day on the phone defending yourself and answering the same question over and over, it is natural to get overwhelmed. The nightmare that your daily life becomes is exhausting. Find a few "windows" of three to five-minute blocks of time when you stop everything and relax. Listen to music that quiets you down. Drink water or herbal tea. Take a shower. If you can handle going outside, take a short walk. Close your eyes and breathe in a soothing color. As you exhale, imagine you are releasing tension by breathing out a different color. Your nervous system needs regular relaxation so that you can deal with the craziness without feeling that you are going crazy yourself.
4. Don't give up.
You will learn very quickly that it doesn't matter how many years you have been paying your mortgage, taxes and fees on time, the system is broken. "Your insurance company is not your friend. Your bank is not your friend. The government is not your friend." These words from attorney Denis Kelly who helped me after a water mitigation company threatened to put a lien on my house if I did not agree to pay their inflated invoice. Even if you are conflict-phobic (as I am), get legal advice. File complaints. They expect you to give up. Be persistent.
5. Find someone who listens.
The tendency to isolate after a traumatic event can be dangerous. People who stuff down their feelings and don't talk about what they are going through are more likely to develop alcoholism, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. Don't let yourself slide down that chute. Find a friend, cousin, priest, rabbi, teacher or colleague who won't judge you. You are not crazy! You are a normal person having normal reactions to an abnormal situation.
6. There is no change without loss, no loss without change.
Time does not go backward. As harsh as this may seem, there is no such thing as "back to normal" after a life-shattering event. Unwanted change can bring up turbulent emotions, whether they come as flashbacks, nightmares or tears. Just as food needs to be digested, traumatic memories have to be metabolized by the psyche. You will have good days, bad days, very bad days and some nights you would rather not remember. Sad but true: This is how we heal.
7. It is okay to feel angry.
Anger comes from hurting and wanting. When your sense of safety is damaged, even the most easy-going individual can become irritable, grouchy and short-tempered. Find healthy ways to discharge that irritability: Scream in the shower. Throw rocks into the sea. Hit a pillow with a baseball bat. It's all good as long as you avoid hurting yourself or someone else.
8. Just because other people have it worse, doesn't mean that you can't feel bad. Probably the most frequently repeated phrase that I hear during private sessions and group meetings is, "I shouldn't be feeling this way. Other people have it worse." This is true. Some people have it worse. Some people have it better. And you are entitled to whatever you are feeling. Another person's suffering does NOT invalidate your pain. It is not fair to yourself or anyone else to compare miseries. If you feel bad because someone has it worse, bake her cookies or invite him for coffee. You can never have too many flashlights, right? Washcloths, mops and bleach also rock if you want to bring a gift. Just stop using another person's suffering to make yourself feel worse.
9. You are living in a time of storm and fury.
Sudden disruptive climate change, volatile financial crises, random violence and the rapid pace of technological change make it all but impossible to predict the future based on what the recent past has been. Looking back at the past year, if anyone had told you 18 months ago what your life was going to become, would you have believed him? And if you had, would you have taken drastic steps to change your life so that you would not have been living in just that place at the time that the catastrophe occurred? As challenging as it is to take this in, your world -- our world -- is a very different place than it was five or 10 years ago. And we have no way of knowing what it will be like five or 10 years from now. This is a good time to take stock of how you react to change and uncertainty. If you find it threatening, you may want to use this as an opportunity to heal your fears so you can live your dreams, whatever happens down the road
10. Appreciate. Appreciate. Appreciate.
"Many of the things you can count don't count. Many of the things you can't count really count." Albert Einstein allegedly said that. Anniversaries are optimal for taking stock. How are you stronger today? What -- or who -- did you give up that you really did not need? Make a list of the critical decisions that you have made, that you never expected you would have to make, under conditions that were debilitating. Appreciate yourself for finding inner strength, courage and persistence. Thank everyone who shared food, water and heat. Appreciate the ones who showed up and stuck with you. Appreciate that person whom you never knew before. He or she will be your friend for life.
Tune in to Hear and Now at 12 p.m. on October 29, 2013 for more on Hurricane Sandy's anniversary.