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As danger drops anxiety continues

BY SUSAN KIM | LAGLER COUNTY, FL | July 9, 1998

FLAGLER COUNTY, FL (July 9, 1998) -- When the Flagler County Emergency Operations Center needed a professional

counselor to break the news to those who lost their homes in the fires, Dr.

Karen Samuels volunteered. A clinical psychologist, she has extensive

experience in community crisis response. But she admits the fires are

different than any disaster she's seen because they've kept the community

under constant stress for weeks.

"People whose homes were gone had an overall sense of profound grief, and

many said that their worst fear had come true," she said. "But many also

said that waiting and not knowing was worse than finally knowing. The

uncertainty was killing them."

For many Florida residents, evacuations are over. Fires may be ending. But

a serious aftermath of anxiety and depression could be just beginning,

according to Samuels and other mental health professionals.

The community's sense of working together will alleviate some stress, she

said. "There has been an inspiring mutual engagement from people. It's a

testament to the human spirit. A sense of contribution is part of their

healing."

Pamela Brown, a counselor based in Ormond Beach, predicts that

post-traumatic stress will surface four to six weeks after the fires end.

"Right now, people are moving back into their homes or deciding where to

live if their homes were burned. They're dealing with insurance companies.

They're busy helping others. In four to six weeks, when the excitement dies

down, their anxiety and depression will surface. They've had this massive

focus on the fires for weeks which will be gone, and they'll have to focus

on themselves. Children can be especially traumatized when a family loses a

home," she said.

Dr. Gary Harbaugh, assistant to the bishop for leadership support at the

Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Lutheran Church, said fire survivors can also

experience anger and depression when relief and recovery efforts and

insurance payments take longer than expected. "Often there is an impact on

a family system that is unexpected and shows up in indirect ways -- school,

job, marriage or family difficulties."

In anticipation of mental health needs that will surface after initial

cleanup, state and county emergency management offices, local schools, the

American Red Cross, Lutheran Disaster Response, Florida Interfaith Natural

Disaster (FIND), Halifax Medical Center, Elder Affairs, Christian Sharing

Center, Geneva Recovery Center, and other community and faith-based

organizations are organizing volunteer crisis counselors who can help fire

survivors cope with post-traumatic stress.

What else can fire survivors do to ease anxiety? Talk about it, said Pamela

Brown. "Sit down with a counselor -- whether it's someone from your church,

your community or in a private practice -- and tell your story as though

you were watching a movie. Then rewind it and tell it again. From a

biblical perspective, Jesus said 'where two or more of you are gathered in

my name, there I will be.'"

For children with lingering fear, Doug Lavery, administrator of the East

Coast Center for Psychiatry, suggests that parents emphasize their safety.

"Practice doing an evacuation route through your home because it helps

children feel more in control of their own safety," he said. "Let churches

and schools know if your children are experiencing stress because they can

help ease fear as well."

Caregivers -- emergency management personnel, pastors, volunteers,

firefighters -- can also become traumatized from constant contact with fire

survivors and a natural empathy for those in need. Through his experience

offering counseling services for other disasters -- the Oklahoma City

bombing and southern California earthquakes as well as tornadoes,

hurricanes, and floods nationwide -- Dr. Harbaugh notes that caregivers

become very vulnerable to burnout.

Harbaugh will lead a "Caring for the Caregiver" seminar through the

Lutheran Disaster Response and FIND. "The desire to help is so strong that

people can push beyond their usual capacities. I encourage people not to

exhaust themselves so that they lose their resilience. Caregivers need to

learn how to pace themselves over a much longer time than most people think

it will take to recover from a disaster. It is not uncommon for pastors to

leave an area within a year or so of a disaster, which can increase the

sense of loss by a congregation," he said.

Caregivers have their own serious mental health needs, agreed the Rev. Mike

Modica, First Assembly of God in Deland, whose church was one of many

command stations offering water, food, and supplies -- including bandannas

prayed over by church members -- for firefighters and other volunteers.

"One day I gave bandannas to two women who were volunteering in a tent for

the emergency management office. They cried when they thanked me, and told

me they'd both just evacuated their homes," he said. "That made us realize

there are countless folks who have emotional and spiritual needs even

though they're not holding the firehose -- folks from FEMA, the National

Guard, the sheriff's office, and all the other supporters."

Jody Hill, FIND executive director, said that faith-based organizations,

churches, and emergency management offices will work together closely to

offer crisis counseling and case management for fire survivors. "These

communities are facing the fact that nothing is the same," said Hill. "When

they look out their windows and open their doors, nothing will look the

same for a long, long time."

Posted July 9, 1998


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