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Life According To Lenson

Don't Forget The Survivors Of Hurricane Sandy
Posted by Eileen Lenson on Nov 3, 2012 - 10:00:07 AM

UNITED STATES—Long after the debris has been cleaned up from the destructive forces of hurricane Sandy, the survivors will be experiencing emotional pain.  At the time of crisis, this emotional pain is often not noticed by anyone.  In shock, the survivors' feelings are repressed.  The short-term benefit is it enables them to focus on immediate concerns, rather than being overwhelmed by the emotional enormity of the crisis.  The long-term detriment is they are not prepared for the flood of emotional distress that arrives weeks after the tragedy struck.



Television and newspaper reporting cannot accurately capture the extent to which lives are shattered by the flooding and accompanying disaster. In a crisis, there is little time or available resources to focus on the survivors' feelings. First responders are attempting to return people to safety.  Survivors often express relief at having survived the terrifying experience.  They confidently speak of rebuilding their homes and their lives.  After all, they remind themselves, it was a house they lost.  Material goods can be replaced.  Being a survivor is what matters. 


Yet the damage caused by the catastrophic losses is deeper and longer lasting than material loss.  Survivors attempt to prepare themselves for the big losses, such as their house.  But sometimes rebuilding is not an option, and the survivor must face years of paying a mortgage on a house that no longer exists. 


Oftentimes, the initial euphoria at being a survivor disintegrates once the reality sets in.  This happens at different times for different people.  The survivors most at risk for emotional pain are the elderly, isolated, impoverished, children, and anyone who has suffered other recent or unresolved loss.


The elderly who are isolated from family or significant others are at risk.  Many do not drive. Others are not physically capable of packing and carrying their belongings, including medications, medical records, and clothing to an evacuation site.  If they wait until after the disaster, they risk running out of food and water.  The elderly in a high rise apartment building may be unable to safely negotiate their dark apartments and many flights of stairs to the ground floor, if electricity is out. 


Survivors who are impoverished are at elevated risk for long term emotional difficulties.  The poor have less purchasing power to secure their homes from hurricane damage.  They are more likely to already be coping with multiple crises, such as health and financial concerns.  They transition into the post-disaster phase unable to recoup their losses because they may not have adequate insurance, savings, or knowledge of where to go for help.


In times of crisis, children will turn to their parents for reassurance and support.  If the parents are distracted and not emotionally available to support their children, the child's sense of safety and normalcy is destabilized.  Furthermore, the hurricane's destruction may disrupt the community structure, resulting in a child's friends lost to relocation, and comforting routines such as attending school, church, and sporting activities lost.  Families may be separated for a period of time, further contributing to adjustment problems for children


The emotional reactions from survivors vary, from fear, confusion, and shock, to difficulty making decisions, anger and depression.  Some survivors will begin to experience somatic problems, including headaches, stomach aches and stress induced asthma.


Children react to devastation differently than adults.  In addition to symptoms seen in adults, children may express their stress by regressing to a lower level of functioning.  Sadness is often presented in children as anger.  Unfortunately, parents who are already overwhelmed may react to the child's anger instead of exploring the pain behind it.


The loss of one's social support system compounds the loss.  Family members, feeling guilty for not having done something to avert the emotional and financial impact to their families, may withdraw from loved ones.  Unmet expectations from FEMA, frustrations with their insurance carrier, loss of one's job, and anger at the length of time it is taking to get back to normal makes the emotional stress more burdensome for the survivors, and distracts them from providing needed emotional support.


Even the fortunate who have a home and survive the disaster may find the alterations to their neighborhood to be too great.  After the 1993 firestorms in Laguna Beach, CA that damaged or destroyed 441 homes, one hillside community experienced the loss of all but one home.  Despite the neighboring homes being ablaze, the fire department successfully battled the flames away from their house, in large part due to careful attention to fire prevention construction and vegetation planting.  The homeowners' joy was short lived, as they reportedly felt isolated by their neighbors who lost their homes, and were resented for their good fortune.  It changed the feelings they had for their home, and in the ensuing months, sold it and moved elsewhere in Laguna Beach.


Lesser losses than one's home are not necessarily less significant.  Most people interviewed following hurricane Sandy spoke of the value they placed on preserving tangible memories.  Photographs represent a person's history.  One father on CNN spoke of sifting through the remains of his burnt down home following the fire that ravaged his neighborhood.  Nothing appeared to be salvageable.  Just as he turned to leave, he caught a glimpse of something under the soot.  Brushing the debris away, he discovered a piece of concrete that had his daughter's hand print, marking the day their concrete walkway had been poured at their new home.  He not only rescued this block of concrete, but searched and found the second piece of concrete with his other daughter's handprint.  He told the news reporter that he intended to take these two concrete blocks to show his children. 


Many dates in the upcoming weeks and years will prove troublesome for the survivors of hurricane Sandy.  Having to spend otherwise memorable days, such as birthdays and Christmas, in a state of limbo, will be stressful.  News of approaching storms will likely be nerve-racking for the survivors. The one year anniversary will bring back a flood of emotions. The television crews and reporters will be gone, but the survivors, who are recovering from possibly the most devastating experience of their lifetime, will still be forging ahead as best as they know how.


Eileen Lenson, MSW, ACSW, Board Certified Coach, is a life and business coach in private practice.  Prior to becoming a life coach, she was a licensed clinical social worker for 20 years.  During that period of time she worked extensively with trauma victims, and spoke internationally on her work with families dealing with the loss of a loved one.  For further information, write to her at, or visit her website at


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