Friday, September 19, 2008

After the storm: recovering after a large-scale traumatic event

I live in the Houston area and, if you didn’t notice, we had a little storm this past weekend. Of course, I jest when I say, “that little storm.” It was almost a week ago when I lost electricity, several hours before Hurricane Ike made landfall on the island city of Galveston. It took a few more hours for that hurricane’s eye to come inland and pass over my part of northeastern Houston, but hit it did.

I was one of the lucky ones who had my electricity back on Saturday night. That left only about two million other Houstonians without power, more than half of whom are still without it today. I got my internet connection back a couple of days ago and have been steadily catching up on news as the Bayou City and the surrounding areas recover from this devastating storm.

I was lucky in so many ways aside from having my electricity restored so soon, but before moving to the section of town where I now reside, I lived and worked in some of the most affected areas of this storm. My wife and I have previously owned homes in both Clear Lake and Seabrook, and frequently enjoyed the short, five minute drive to dine at the Kemah Boardwalk. During my final year of grad school, I worked as an LPC intern at Shriners Burns Hospital in Galveston. My family also enjoyed many, frequent trips to Galveston for brief getaways, and have sailed out of there for three cruises. Each of these locations --Clear Lake, Seabrook, Kemah, and Galveston—are along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and were struck violently when Ike came ashore. You can see then, that we’ve got many emotional ties to the affected areas, as well as several good friends who still live around there.

So, you say what’s that got to do with this blog, aside from the obvious connection to myself? Let me explain…

I spoke to one of those good friends who still live in the Clear Lake area last night. This was actually the third time I spoke to her this week. The first time was when she returned my call to check on her. She had gotten back to her home after evacuating for a couple of days. She returned to find her home without electricity and some tree limbs down, but otherwise intact. She sounded very drained, both physically and emotionally, which most would expect after what she had just been through. On a scale of one to five, with one being the worst emotional state, she was close to a one.

The next time I spoke to her was two days later. Her power was back on and she had been shopping at Sam’s Club. She was her normal, energetic self. On that one to five scale, she was pushing a solid five.

Then, when I spoke to her last night, she was back down fluctuating somewhere between those two extremes. She was full of self-doubt, anxious about the way things were going, and even questioned her ability to make sound judgments. She wondered what was going on. She asked me if this was normal, if she was normal.

What had caused that shift back downward to happen?

First, she and all the supervisory staff had been called to work. As a supervisor, she had been told to be a nurturing parent to her staff, and was urged to reach out to check on her staff. At no time did the higher ups acknowledge that the supervisors were dealing with any of these same emotional issues from the hurricane that they were supposed to acknowledge and tend to. Nobody from above reached out and checked on her. The supervisors had evacuated as well as anybody that worked for them. Just because they were supervisory staff didn’t make them immune from the same feelings they were being told to nurture with their staff. However, the administration at her institution seemed to overlook the fact that the supervisors are people who have to manage that same emotional upheaval, just as their subordinates.

Let me say that this woman is a strong and passionate leader. She knows the rules and regulations regarding her profession, but never forgets that she and her staff are people first. If anything, she is one who leads with her heart.

What also happened was that my friend was missing the fact that the only thing that was normal was to feel abnormal. There are still long lines to get gas, often with waits of sometimes several hours; most homes in Houston still don’t have electricity; all the schools are closed; many grocery stores are open, but often haven’t restocked perishables; of the open grocers, most of these are operating on emergency power. Drive through any neighborhood in Houston at night and, most likely, it will be only the car’s headlights lighting it. The streetlights are out, as are most of the traffic lights. She cannot go anywhere that things are normal yet.

That probably describes the underlying reason for what my friend felt. The fourth largest city in America is not normal and she felt that she had to be back to normal just because she had electricity and goes back to work next week. We’re still recovering and things won’t be fully normal for some time to come.

Yes, my friend is normal, feeling the normal emotional swings that we all do when managing traumatic situations in our life. She has just watched the community she has lived in for decades get hammered. People she knows have been hit harder than either she or I. We all deal with these situations in our own ways, but underneath it all, we all feel the mood shifts.

The higher ups where my friend is employed would do well to recognize that we are all impacted by these events. The administrators would do well to heed their own advice and be nurturing parents to their supervisors.

The bottom line in this is that we are all affected by a major traumatic event such as a hurricane. The personal impact will vary from one individual to the next, but we all feel something when an event of this magnitude strikes home. Some people lost everything, some a bit, and some very little when it comes to physical things. Aside from those who lost their lives in this tragic event, we will all recover from it.

The critical factor in this emotional recovery process is exactly the same as it is with physical recovery after a destructive event of such scale – time.

So, don’t rush it. The old saying is that time heals all wounds. Give yourself time to recover after major trauma. Likewise, also give your friends and family time to recover. Reach out to one another, give a quick shout out and say, “How are you doing?” just to let somebody know you care.


Peter Alan Smith said...

Good points Ron! I would also add that I, like many other folks from around the USA, send our heartfelt wishes for healing the wounds inflicted by Ike. You have reminded me that I have a "to do" list with the words "set up a disaster kit" left unchecked. It's always one of those things that you mean to get to but often don't. The information on how to set one up is at:

Boston has been nailed by storms in the past. I'm moving to Charleston, SC in November. They certainly have had their share. Hang in there!


Lon said...

Thanks for sharing Ron. I am so glad you are OK. I am glad to hear your news. And by the way, it would be OK to share what is going on with you even if it didn't have anything to do with your blog. You are important to us!
Hang in there...

Ron Graham said...

Peter and Lon,

Thanks for the words of encouragement. I’ll soon be back writing more regularly. Schedules and resources here are still up in the air, making time online limited. Its good to have you guys in my corner!