(Photo:Flickr/United States Government Work)

As the East Coast continues to recover 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. Annette Schreiber, an ACA member and New Jersey resident who spent her time post-Sandy volunteering at a local American Red Cross shelter, is the next to share her thoughts.

Annette Schreiber, a newly recruited volunteer for disaster mental health with the Jersey Coast Chapter of the American Red Cross, was fortunate that Hurricane Sandy did not damage her Manahawkin, N.J., home. But her office, located on Long Beach Island, was under an evacuation mandate from the storm for more than two weeks, preventing her from working there.

“The building looks like it sustained no damage, so even though we were borrowing office space temporarily, it was frustrating that I couldn’t see my clients in my own office where we all were more comfortable with the familiar place,” Schreiber says. “I think yet another change in our lives was disconcerting to everyone, myself included.”

Despite those setbacks, Schreiber chose to be proactive and help those in the community hit hardest by the storm. On Oct. 28, the day before Hurricane Sandy hit, she began volunteering at an American Red Cross Shelter located at Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin.

Much of her time was spent walking throughout the shelter and simply talking with the people staying there, including numerous fragile older adults who needed reassurance. Other times, the nurses or other evacuees asked her to talk specifically to people who were having a difficult time.

“I think it would be a cliché to say that my experience as a volunteer at a Red Cross shelter was a life-changing experience, but I am changed,” she related to CT Online. “Putting on my Red Cross vest each day gave me a sense of pride and purpose, of being a part of something bigger than I imagined. Although my part of the operation is over, the Red Cross continues to play a huge part as we cope with the devastation wrought by Sandy.”

What Schreiber saw upon visiting the shelter when volunteering was both “sad and wonderful,” she says.

“I found myself both energized and exhausted. I saw my community come together to help those affected by the storm. One evening, one of the nurses said they needed pillows to prop up some of the elderly guests so that they could breathe more easily. I put a message out on my Facebook page that the shelter needed bed pillows. By time I left, someone had dropped off a half-dozen pillows, and a couple of the teen volunteers went out to BJ’s and brought back literally a carload of pillows. By the next day, the shelter had all they needed. The outpouring of generosity by my high school friends, and my community, was absolutely amazing. All differences we may have had, especially right before the election, were put aside to come together to help those in need. In the end, this is our community, our home, our school and our people.”

Schreiber says that before licensed mental health professionals begin volunteering at shelters, they need to be trained in disaster mental health, psychological first aid, crisis intervention, trauma and PTSD treatment, and critical incident work.

“I have over 100 CEUs in these areas,” she explains, “which is perhaps why, although this was my first experience at a Red Cross shelter, I felt very comfortable in what I was doing.”

Schreiber says it is important for counselors working in this environment to be “versatile, because you never know what is going to happen next. You may be helping not only the evacuees, but also staff members who are overworked and sleep deprived. You need to know how to listen and to find ways of joining with people. For example, I have lived in South Jersey all of my life, and one of my earliest memories is evacuating from Hurricane Donna in 1960. It seemed to help me develop rapport with evacuees when they knew that I’ve evacuated a few times myself. Also, by being local, there were sometimes connections from the past. I talked to one lady who had been a teacher at my old grade school.”

Currently, Schreiber and other counselors in the area are still providing emotional support to those affected by the storm.

“In certain circumstances, when done correctly by a trained professional, critical incident debriefing is appropriate,” she says. “Stress management is also important. Down the road, we are looking at possible acute stress disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder in both victims and first responders, so we have to be thinking about trauma treatment and more stress management of various kinds. People [have lost] their homes, possessions and livelihoods. Families are either split up, or have too much togetherness as they are taken in by relatives. Some people may have to relocate indefinitely. We help by listening, by helping them process the trauma [and] assist in the grieving process of losing important parts of their personal and family histories.”

Counselors living outside of the areas directly impacted by Sandy may also have clients touched by the disaster, Schreiber emphasizes.

“To a certain degree, people farther away are affected, especially if they have family or friends in the affected areas,” Schreiber says. “They can feel helpless that they are unable to be there to lend assistance, and sometimes feel guilty that they are in their own homes, warm and dry.”

In addition, when working with people affected by Sandy, counselors may be surprised at how resilient individuals are.

“We go in half expecting to find people weeping and wailing about their experience.  And there are some tears,” Schreiber says.  “But they often find things to laugh about, and they bond with other people: teenage volunteers with elderly people, or people who meet in the shelter, share the adventures and hardships, and I believe these friendships will last a very long time. And people were so grateful for small things.  Over and over again, the shelter ‘guests’ told me how nice everyone was and how much they appreciated what we could do for them.”

Read parts one, two and three in this series.

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

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