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Disasters require resilience

Anybody - from an elderly person to a young child - can be resilient during a disaster, Florida responders said this week.

BY SUSAN KIM | DENVER | June 23, 2005

"We have a very vulnerable population out there."

—George Tokesky

Anybody - from an elderly person to a young child - can be resilient during a disaster, responders at the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster conference in Denver, said this week.

But first they need to know what resources are there - and who can simply listen.

To thousands of people, Tropical Storm Arlene - while it didn’t bring significant structural damage - awakened anxiety that has lurked in hurricane survivors since last year’s active season.

“From a meteorological perspective, we’ve already got things going on,” said a Federal Emergency Management Agency official.

The public reaction to Arlene - along with the reaction of responders - has some concerned that hurricane survivors are just plain tired, he said. “Volunteers responded en masse last season, and they did it again, and again.”

Will they have it in them to do it again this year? Sometimes it’s just a matter of checking on your neighbor - and there’s a pretty good chance that neighbor might be elderly.

Currently 22.1 percent of Florida’s population are people over 60 years of age, estimated George Tokesky, alternate emergency coordinating officer for the Florida Department of Elder Affairs.

Within the next decade, Florida’s elderly population could grow so that one in three people is over the age of 60. “We have a very vulnerable population out there,” said Tokesky.

When average statistics regarding Alzheimer’s disease are taken into account, that means about 435,000 people in Florida have Alzheimer’s. And, Tokesky added, more than 900,000 are very vulnerable Floridians, meaning they require special assistance during a disaster in the form of special needs shelters.

When you multiply that scenario times four major storms, it fatigues both survivors and caregivers.

So how do you focus on resiliency? People who have survived disasters are often told by well-intentioned friends to try to “bounce back.”

But people aren’t rubber balls, pointed out Johanna Olson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s domestic disaster response program. “How we respond is unique to our experiences,” she said. And resiliency, she added, comes from learning from those experiences.

“That’s what the 'bounciness' is,” she said, coining a term that gathered nods of affirmation from the responders in the audience.

People need to realize that after a disaster they are generally experiencing a normal response to an abnormal setting. Part of resiliency, Olson said, is accepting your response and working with it.

A toddler in a shelter had lost his stuffed Elmo toy, Olson remembered, and was crying. “But a caregiver said, ‘We can’t get Elmo right now, but what is with you right now that will help you at this moment?’ ” And the boy - young as he was - was able to comprehend that way of coping, because it acknowledged his loss but built in the strength he had, Olson said.

“Making connections with other people helps,” she pointed out. “It’s not just you at work. What we are doing here at this conference is networking and promoting care.”

A faith system helps build post-disaster resiliency, too, she said. “You’re social. You’re not so happy in isolation.”

Rituals - church and family ones - can be comforting. “They allow for action and bring us together collectively,” said Olson. “And rituals give us a way of interpreting reflection. It’s another way of injecting hope.”

Making connections means being able to listen to other people - and finding people who will listen to your own story of survival, said Olson. “The art of listening is not to be undervalued.”

Being intentional about listening can promote validation, feelings and reactions from other people.

For a disaster survivor, simply telling the story of survival can mean the beginning of recovery. “That story is their rope to get out of where they are,” said Olson. “Anytime someone shares their experience, they are taking a break from that experience.”

Taking a break from the post-disaster experience - whether you’re a survivor or a caregiver - is vitally important, agreed responders, many of whom said they didn’t always successfully balance their work load last hurricane season. “We have learned about ourselves personally,” said Olson. “Knowing our limits keeps us doing good work.”

Church World Service Disaster Response and Recovery Liaison Lesli Remaly said she felt she had gained a sense of resiliency in the wake of last season’s hurricanes. “I was given a sense of resiliency because I was able to identify people to tell my story to,” she said.

Post-disaster fatigue, she pointed out, may come well after the disaster has hit, and recognizing you have mental fatigue is the precursor to developing resiliency. “What are our limitations? We need to recognize our own limitations. You always have to be in that constant state of taking that pulse - not just the physical pulse, the mental pulse.”

Remaly suggested - for responders and survivors alike - preselecting someone to listen to you before a disaster even hits. “There is a comfort level that there is somebody out there who becomes your confidante,” she said.

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