(Photo:Flickr/United States Government Work)

As the East Coast recovers from Hurricane Sandy, a historic “superstorm” that claimed more than 120 lives in the United States and left an unthinkable path of destruction in its wake, Counseling Today reached out to a few American Counseling Association members living in affected areas. We asked them to share their thoughts on how counselors can be of help in both the immediate aftermath of Sandy and also in the long term. Jane Webber, former president of the New Jersey Counseling Association and current member of the ACA Crisis Response Planning Task Force, is the next to share her thoughts.

Jane Webber, co-editor of Terrorism, Trauma and Tragedies: A Counselor’s Guide to Preparing and Responding, third edition, published by ACA, thought she would be one of those helping in recovery efforts for Hurricane Sandy. Instead, she is in the midst of recovering herself.

“I am a part of the New Jersey system for ready responders as a disaster response crisis counselor, and I was prepared to volunteer,” says Webber, a Jersey City resident. “I did not expect that Hurricane Sandy would also affect my community and me.”

“Sandy roared through our town and up our street like a monster,” she recalls. “It was the worst storm I have ever experienced, even when I grew up on the Jersey Shore. The next morning, we walked outside to downed trees and wires everywhere, and the poles and transformers are still a mangled mess.”

Webber’s house was not damaged during the storm or its aftermath. However, some of her neighbors were not so lucky.

As Webber related to CT Online on Sunday, Nov 4, “Many shore residents have no home to return to, and I count my blessings that we are OK. We have no heat, no power, no phone service. We pack up the car in the morning hoping to find a hotel vacancy, unpacking it at night and crawling under blankets in the dark. The temperature has dropped below freezing, and we slept in the basement last night where it was warmer. … The whole town is dark at night and perhaps three families are left in the neighborhood. We stand in line in the library for a spot to charge our cell phone from a generator and to share a little heat and our stories during the day.”

 Webber says those who experienced Sandy directly faced the possibility of death, which she calls the “ultimate existential experience.”

“Survivors may be deeply shaken as they reflect on their survival and their losses,” Webber says. “Families stay very close, and while some can begin to consider decisions about staying or leaving, rebuilding or abandoning, others are in shock or worrying about heat and food and just pulling it together each day. … Those who left may need your support when they can return to inspect the damage. I sat next to one woman at the hospital who said that she did not know her house was gone until she saw her destroyed neighborhood on the news.”

One of the main things counselors can do to help those recovering from Sandy is to be empathic, she says.

“Counselors are fully present, attending, supporting and lending an ear as survivors pull together [and] decide how, when and where to rebuild their lives,” Webber says. “In the immediate aftermath, counselors use psychological first aid rather than mental health counseling to help people going through a normal response to an abnormal event. We can assist individuals and families in empowering themselves toward recovery, and in time, through the overwhelming experience of gathering the remains of their homes [and] navigating through insurance, FEMA, unemployment and emergency assistance to continue.”

A great need exists for counselors living outside of affected areas to help, Webber says.

“Counselors in other areas can assist relocated individuals coping with separation and loss and making decisions about resettlement and employment in [what is] an already distressed job market,” she says. “Individuals may relive previous hurricanes or tornadoes, particularly if they live in certain geographic areas. Others may vicariously experience Hurricane Sandy through television news coverage and may need to ground themselves with your support. Each individual with traumatic experiences has a story to tell in order to move forward.”

Counselors can also be a primary resource in assisting individuals who have special needs as they recover from Sandy.

“Survivors with mental health problems and co-occurring disorders may be more vulnerable and in need of medication and additional support,” Webber says. “Shelter volunteers may not have the time or the training to provide assistance to persons with disabilities, and this is where outside counselors can play an important role in helping vulnerable clients in both the immediate aftermath and in the long-term recovery.”

Webber points out that counselors in areas hit by Sandy are dealing with their own hurricane experience and recovery, making it all the more important for outside counselors to help.

“[A colleague] and I have talked about the effect of contemporaneous trauma, when counselors have experienced the disaster personally [and are also] experiencing the impact of their client’s trauma from the same event. Few if any counselors have been untouched in the state,” she says.

For many residents in devastated towns, counselors included, the recovery process could extend for weeks and even months. Of particular concern in the days to come, says Webber, “are older individuals, those with multiple physical and emotional needs, and children and families who have been displaced or separated from their friends and relatives.”

Webber emphasizes that children need to be reassured that they are safe and encouraged to express their feelings.

“They may not have the words to describe the terror of the hurricane, and play is their universal language,” she says. “Parents and guardians need to be close to their children and respond honestly and sensitively to questions. Encouraging the child to play and talk first helps limit parents’ need to overexplain the disaster. … Long, dark nights without their favorite TV shows and possibly without cherished pets or stuffed animals can be very scary. Card and board games with family members are good ways to stay connected and pass the time.”

She also recommends watching Sesame Street Workshop videos, which address children’s feelings and questions about disasters.

Additionally, counselors can look at the suggested responses in the Psychological First Aid Field Operations Guide, which Webber finds helpful. A free psychological first aid course is also available on the website.

Other recommendations Webber provides to counselors interested in helping in affected areas:

  •  Teach individuals of all ages self-regulation techniques such as deep breathing and relaxation.
  •  Do not pressure children or teens to talk when they are not ready.
  • Let them know you will check with them again soon and find a better time to talk.
  • Do not expect to conduct mental health counseling in the beginning. Psychological first aid is nonintrusive, brief, practical and empowering.
  •  Do not self-deploy to another area. Register and deploy with a unit.
  •  Do listen fully and attend as a compassionate “lurker.”

To prepare for future disasters, Webber recommends that ACA members “consider becoming a disaster mental health responder through the American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health training offered at the ACA Conference & Expo. You can also attend the Learning Institute, ‘Essentials of Disaster and Crisis Counseling,’ at the conference. You can also prepare by completing the FEMA courses, ICS 100 and NIMS 700, online or through your state disaster training unit.”

In the wake of Sandy, Webber says she is “amazed at the resilience of the human spirit after such horrific terror and destruction that often changes the way we view our world. Counselors may be most surprised by the power of post-traumatic growth. Neighbors help neighbors and strangers reach out with acts of remarkable kindness and compassion. Survivors often share their deepest human feelings about what they have been through, finding new meaning in their experience. They emerge from trauma stronger and more committed.”

Read parts one and two in this series.

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at hrudow@counseling.org.