By Kelley Shinn
Let me first state clearly that I do not advocate a staunch position, one way or another as to the reopening of this island. It matters not if you have an opinion anyhow, as the Hyde County Board of Commissioners voted on Nov. 20, with one dissenting vote, to reopen the island beginning Dec. 2.
On Nov. 18, I was one of several island voices who were featured in a news segment on WRAL. I expressed that it can be a dangerous thing for people, emotionally, if the island were to open too soon. In the days that followed, two people expressed their anger at my comments in a vicious manner.
I care deeply for my neighbors, and I understand that disaster takes an enormous toll on individuals and families within communities.
There are approximately 1,000 voices on this island. They are the voices of 1,000 people who survived a natural disaster that could have been immensely worse considering that there were no human casualties. As each of those 1,000 survivors is unique, so is their own personal disaster unique—Dorian has caused significant losses that vary greatly from survivor to survivor.
For some islanders, this is their first major trauma. Personally, I’ve had a lifetime of extensive experience both empirically and theoretically in trauma and disaster. Despite my own personal losses, I have taught trauma-related courses at the collegiate level. I’ve worked in conjunction with Landmine Survivors Network in Bosnia-Herzegovina a few years after the genocide, and I’ve worked extensively as a legal and medical liaison for breast cancer patients, cerebral palsy patients and amputees. It’s an odd feeling to be grateful to have experienced and observed multiple incidents of major trauma and disaster in one lifetime, but I find myself grateful on a daily basis because it’s provided me with a road map to healing. Understanding the processes of the neuropsychological realm following trauma is an essential key to enduring them.
In Disaster Mental Health Services: A Guidebook for Clinicians and Administrators, published by the Department of Veterans Affairs in conjunction with The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the aftermath of disasters, including natural ones such as Dorian, are defined in four phases, which I will paraphrase:
The first one is the Heroic phase, in which “individuals and the community direct inordinate levels of energy into the activities of rescuing, helping, sheltering, emergency repair, and cleaning up. This phase normally lasts from a few hours to a few days.” We’ve been there and done that, quite heroically.
Phase 2 is the Honeymoon phase, “in which survivors witness the influx of resources, national or worldwide media attention, visiting VIPS, who reassure them their community will be restored. Survivors begin to believe that their home, community, and life as they know it will be restored quickly and without complications. Generally, by the third week resources begin to diminish, the media coverage lessens, VIPS are no longer visiting, and the complexity of rebuilding and restoration becomes increasingly apparent.” We’ve seen that parade go by.
Phase 3 is Disillusionment “in which fatigue, irritating experiences, and the knowledge of all that is required to restore their lives combine to produce disillusionment. Survivors discover that significant financial benefits are in the form of loans, not grants, that home insurance isn’t what they understood it to be, that politics, rather than need, shape decisions; that a neighbor with a damaged chimney received greater benefits than a neighbor whose roof collapsed. Complaints about betrayal, abandonment, lack of justice, bureaucratic red tape and incompetence are ubiquitous. Symptoms related to post-traumatic stress intensify and hope diminishes.” Sound familiar? I believe we are here now.
Where we are going is Phase 4—Restabilization, “when the groundwork laid during the previous months begins to produce observable changes. Applications have been approved, loans worked out, and (large-scale) reconstruction begins to take place. Generally speaking, some individuals are able to regain equilibrium within six months. For others, it may well take between 18 and 36 months.”
A native islander and I can tell you from experience that it only takes a few hours to have your legs cut off, but it takes a year and a half to walk again, and the walk is never the same. In order to thrive, one requires patience and a willingness to honor and embrace each step of the healing process.
Experts will tell you that until Phase 4 is reached, a community is not ready to integrate the trauma into a new normal and be ready for healthy psychosocial interactions.
In this village, the common stress reactions to disaster cited by the National Center for PTSD are prominent, including anger, helplessness, headaches, gastrointestinal symptoms, social withdrawal and increased conflict with relationships, to name a handful.
One of the reasons that a group of us went to Raleigh Nov. 13 was to advocate and ensure that Ocracoke had adequate funds appropriated for winter “insulation”—in case we were deemed not ready to open. Now, $1.7 million is to be directed to our school, and according to Rep. Chuck McGrady, almost $20 million is coming to the county to help with various forms of Individual Assistance and rebuild.
And now, the hope is that more money will pour into our island community with the opening of the island, despite not having the normal number of accommodations, shops/restaurants open to serve the public-at-large. Many of the accommodations that the public-at-large have access to will now be in direct competition with the volunteers and disaster crews who are committed to the long-term recovery of the community.
There are no easy solutions, and, as it has been since Sept. 6, each day will require immeasurable flexibility and fortitude. When members of this tight-knit community, who have all suffered together since day one, are having difficulty remaining kind and patient, it is reasonable to consider that it will become even more difficult to remain stoic when the public-at-large is present, peering at our new scars, particularly for islanders in high-profile working positions who will be asked to reiterate Dorian stories again and again.
But take heart: It’s true that Ocracoke is stronger than Dorian. It is also true that Ocracoke isn’t singular in their disaster. “Approximately 17 million people living in North America are exposed annually to trauma and disaster.” (Meichenbaum, 1995). And experts in the field of disaster and trauma have been creating roadmaps for decades to help survivors regain stability and a sense of normalcy.
Be kind and patient with yourself. If you are only able to move some rubble for an hour, then congratulate yourself for the progress. If you are only able to make one necessary bureaucratic phone call for the day, then congratulate yourself on the patience that requires. If you can’t even get out of bed for a day, then congratulate yourself on the ability to listen to the needs of your body, mind and soul. Remember, slow and steady wins the race, and at the finish line is a loving, island village that will be stronger and more compassionate than we already knew it to be.
The following chart is a list of Common Stress Reactions to Disaster. This chart, as well as all of the quotations not cited in this piece are courtesy of Disaster Mental Health Services: A Guidebook for Clinicians and Administrators. (Young, Ford, Ruzek, Friedman & Gusman, 1998).
If any of the above symptoms are affecting you, then please visit the websites following the charts to get your road maps, to help you understand that your reactions are normal, and that there is hope and help available.
(Lots of specific information on all the complexities of dealing with disaster.)
(Excellent information on helping children to cope, specific to age ranges.)
(Disaster hotline numbers so that you can call someone and just talk! Free! Multilingual! Specifically created in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.)