'We're way behind'

In Indiana, people are suffering, in their own quiet way, the after-effects of Isabel.

BY SUSAN KIM | KOKOMO, Ind. | October 6, 2003

"All the groups are working so well together better than they ever have."

—Lane Sims

In Indiana, people are suffering, in their own quiet way, the after-effects of Isabel. When Isabel the largest hurricane in decades to slam the mid-Atlantic grabbed national media attention, Indiana's disaster recovery became yesterday's news.

And that's taking a mental toll on state that had a tornado last fall, then major flooding in July and September. Some counties were declared federal disaster areas twice in a four-month span.

The evidence of emotional fatigue is not so much in the official reports as it is in the remarks disaster responders are starting to make anonymously.

"I know we're way behind," said one responder, before she corrected herself "actually, no, we're not way behind but it just feels like we are."

Another responder said: "We're off the map."

Another added: "Indiana is the disaster stepchild at this point."

At the First Presbyterian Church in Kokomo, Karen Dinger was among many residents in that hard-hit city who felt left to the sway of the media.

"In the beginning I saw a lot on it," she said, "then I didn't hear as much."

It wouldn't be so bad if responders and survivors there weren't already tired, pointed out Mary Anna Speller of the United Church of Christ's National Disaster Ministries Network.

"People are fatigued," she said. "They felt that way after the first flood, and now they're even more tired."

Volunteer help was at its peak in the summer, Speller said, but now volunteers are usually available only on weekends.

And a slow cleanup means harmful mold has had ample chance to grow, she added. "I mean major cases of mold," she explained.

Faith-based and voluntary groups in the state have been working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to train people who will deal with very harmful types of mold the kind that require protective gear when you're exposed.

Lane Sims of Friends Disaster Service has seen the harmful effects of mold firsthand. "There are people with lung problems who are not able to live in their homes. So they closed up their homes and left and that made the mold problem even worse," he said. "In many ways, the tornado was easier to work with."

But there is progress, too, both Speller and Sims pointed out. There are nine long-term recovery committees in place throughout the state. "And there are quite a few buyouts," Speller said.

Some faith-based groups are working on ways to help people say goodbye to their homes, she said. "It's called a house de-commissioning. One mayor approached some of the clergy and said he needed help in writing the liturgy for that. It could be a healthy form of closure."

People have drawn together even as national attention waned, added Sims, who also serves as the secretary of the state's coalition of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. "All the groups are working so well together better than they ever have. There are a lot of people out there putting in a lot of hours."

The death in September of Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon also took its toll on morale, said Speller. "People from FEMA were affected in a very different way because they had worked closely with him," said Speller.

Linda Reed-Brown, associate director of Church World Service's domestic emergency response program, succinctly summed up Indiana's plight: "The governor died. Isabel came along and took public attention away from the state. Through no fault of their own, that state is in turmoil."

Emotionally overwhelmed is how many flood survivors and responders alike are feeling, agreed Gerry Griffith, a certified crisis responder and trainer with the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA).

Working with other voluntary agencies, NOVA is offering a companion program through which a crisis responder talks with flood survivors to give them a chance to tell their stories. "Then we talk them through what they're going to do, asking 'what do you see as your challenges for next week?' "

The NOVA program has been helping people understand how to apply for help from FEMA, she said. "There was a 93-year-old man who qualified for a 30-year loan with the Small Business Administration," she said. "No bank was going to give him that kind of money. But he was so happy he would be able to leave his family a home that could be lived in or sold."

Griffith is worried that responders those who call themselves caregivers are not taking time to care for themselves. "So far some responders haven't stopped. Or some are volunteers and they haven't had training that shows them what happens to their mind and body when they push themselves too hard."

Then the flood survivors don't get served, either, she said, if hope isn't kept alive for responders. "Nobody can do this alone. We need responders and survivors to keep the community spirit alive together."

Hearing story after story of disaster-related losses can be hard on a responder's psyche, she said, "even though your strength clearly comes from something so much bigger than yourself. It's important for responders to tend to needs of the heart. We call it the ability to keep our hearts open in hell."

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