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Power is almost fully restored throughout most of Long Island, Westchester, and New Jersey. The path of damage and destruction caused by Superstorm Sandy is almost complete, but the scars that the hurricane leaves behind are deep.
Mental health personnel are now on the lookout for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which affected one out of five people after Hurricane Katrina and at least that number after other natural disasters including the Asian Tsunami and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Victims of PTSD experience anxiety, depression, flashbacks, and nightmares for many months sometimes for years afterword.
The way to minimize the damage is to intervene right now; to help people cope with transitions back to normal routines before its too late. Talk about your experience and try to work through it with someone who cares.
There is great concern about financial loss. My own hospital, NYU Langone Medical Center, is struggling to regain its footing through collaboration, long hours of hard work, and a never-say-die attitude. The lights went back on in the hospital this week, and Doctor Radio was once again be proudly broadcasting from the medical center’s lobby this morning.
Most of our out-patient facilities are up and running, and inpatients will be back in several weeks. Teams at Bellevue Hospital and the Manhattan VA, our sister institutions, are also working mightily to repair damage and will reopen in the new year.
The key to recovering from the storm and minimizing the risk of psychic trauma is teamwork and caring, personal courage instead of fear and worry. These emotions run through the same emotional center deep in the brain, known as the amygdala, and if you are responding to your predicament with humor or love or bravery, there is simply no room left in your emotional brain for fear.
Everyone has their own story of survival. One woman in a shelter I visited in Hopatcong New Jersey talked about her pet Chihuahua “Chilly Willy.” She said she refused to leave him in a freezing house and “woulda died dere witim” if she couldn’t bring him safely to the shelter.
Many of my patients are telling me how they took in relatives and friends if they didn’t have power or travelled to their relatives’ homes if they lost theirs.
One of my patients stayed behind in an ice cold apartment without water because she wouldn’t leave her prized tropical fish tank. She used a battery operated turkey baster to keep the fish warm as long as she could; replacing the water in the tank with bottled water. She stayed there until the fish died, and then she went to stay with relatives. She is mourning the loss of her fish as if they were members of her family.
Sandy has brought out the very best in people. Up at the Horace Mann School in Riverdale, a powerful academic institution, free meals were served every night in Fisher Hall Dining Commons, and people came from all over the school and neighborhood to eat macaroni and cheese, pizza, hamburgers, and other comfort foods together and to find commonality in shared stories. Accommodations were made for people who had nowhere to go. Free bus service was provided for those who did. Dr. Thomas Kelly, head of school, set a tone of community and kinship.
Those who were left homeless by the storm must rely on the continuing generousity of others to get by. It is very important that displaced people not take a chance with questionable water or food, that they overcome their emotional tie to their old home and find a new place to stay as soon as possible. For these folks psychological support and social services are crucial.
Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, blackouts meant a chance to meet your neighbor. I found out during one blackout that my upstairs neighbor Mr. Weiner was a gourmet chef. During another I found out that my downstairs neighbor Mrs. Landry was a great comedian.
Hurrricane Sandy has taught us that we are better people than we thought we were; and this realization will help us to heal.