Sandy hits victims hard emotionally
As the weeks drag on, victims of superstorm Sandy wait for some kind of normalcy and grapple with their emotions.
10:17AM EST November 17. 2012 - OCEANSIDE, N.Y. —
Dayna Cohen is frustrated that it took two weeks to get her electricity restored.
She's depressed by her devastated community, which has piles of ruined belongings set out as trash.
She's worried about her 78-year-old mother, who lives with her but temporarily relocated to a nursing home after Superstorm Sandy cut power and gushed floodwater into their house.
And when she had a cozy bed to sleep in at a friend's house, she felt guilty that others didn't have a warm place to stay.
Hurricane Sandy may be long gone, but Cohen and many others in hard-hit areas are still grappling emotionally with the havoc it caused. Feelings such as sadness, fear and anger are common in devastated communities throughout the East Coast.
"It's draining. It's very draining," says Cohen, who has cried almost every day since the storm hit on Oct. 29. "The psychological effect is just awful."
Following a tragic event like the superstorm, there can be "immediate acute signs of stress and trauma" such as increased rates of anxiety, sleep troubles, difficulty focusing at work and increased overall worry, says Lynn Schechter, a psychologist and former Oceanside resident who counseled people after the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.
"You're undergoing a dramatic change in your environment, and that is something that is hard to wrap your head around," she says. "It really pulls the rug out from under you."
The distress can be short-term — or it can last for years.
A worrisome lack of control
Sandy victims have spent nearly three weeks dealing with circumstances that are beyond their control. That can ratchet up anxiety, Schechter says.
"We all have that illusion that we have control over things, but it is an illusion," she says.
People in ravaged areas such as the Long Island community of Oceanside couldn't keep water and sewage from swamping their homes. They couldn't save their cars from corrosive saltwater. They couldn't get electricity turned back on at will.
"There is nothing I can do," Saul Wiener says from his Oceanside house as he waited for power to return.
Wiener, his wife, Melanie, and two young daughters initially stayed in five places over 12 nights as they waited for electricity to return and their flooded basement to be treated for mold and bacteria. Once the more than 6 feet of water was gone, he had to throw away a bed, a TV, a computer and pictures from his and Melanie's childhood.
Tossing the photos was tough.
"That's the worst for me," Melanie says. "The other stuff can be replaced."
Saul's minor defense was growing a beard on his normally clean-shaven face. It was a way of defying Sandy and her wrath, he says: "This is my angry beard."
They try to be strong in front of Hannah, 3,and Olivia, 5 months, but they worry that the girls have picked up on their angst.
"My 5-month-old hasn't been sleeping," Melanie says. "I don't know if she feels my stress."
Communication is key
During a time of such emotional chaos, storm victims may be tempted to isolate themselves, but it's vital to do the opposite, Schechter says.
High stress levels can be reduced by talking or e-mailing with others who also suffered, and by talking with friends and family elsewhere, she says.
"Support networks are really important in a time like this," she says.
She suggests professional help for anyone who feels extremely anxious or depressed.
Cohen and other residents have turned to an Oceanside Facebook community for practical information, as well as emotional comfort.
Users post information on gyms that offer shower facilities for those without hot water, links on how to remove mold and encouraging photos such as an electronic billboard that says "Stay Strong Oceanside!!"
One person shared information on a toll-free disaster distress helpline for people feeling overwhelmed.
Even with that support, Cohen still feels dejected. She says her community needs more mental health aid.
"People are so depressed," she says. "They have no homes and no cars and walk around saying 'What do we do?'"
The streets in Oceanside and other nearby communities are filled with debris. Bagel shops, hair salons and greeting card stores are closed. Spray-painted messages on boarded-up buildings warn potential trespassers that they will be videotaped or worse. "Looters will be shot," one says.
"An entire town is devastated," Cohen says.
Yet there are small signs of optimism.
"We will re-open soon" is painted on the boards outside one store
At a Geico mobile claims center, residents tell adjusters they are thankful that their families survived the storm without injury or death.
When her power came back on, Cohen opened her home to those who didn't have electricity. She expected two guests to sleep over on Friday night, as well as others to stop by throughout the weekend to use her hot water to shower.
Her neighbors keep an eye on the homes of others.
"We're all looking out for each other," she says.
She is down, but she is not out. "I will figure this out," she says. "I will be OK."
Psychologist Schechter's former community is reeling, but she says some people may eventually gain a valuable asset: perspective about what is important in life.
"There is the potential for them to be transformed in a positive way," she says. "It can lead people to appreciate the moment more in life, as well as their family and loved ones. The things that they took for granted before suddenly become much more dear."
In the meantime, "People need to have patience with themselves," she says. "Most of our natures are not patient. We want the electricity back on. We want our houses fixed up just as they were by the next day. But we have to keep the reality check that it is going to take time for the community to rebuild."