Recently a Midwestern farm newspaper editor wrote me.  We have a lot of people in our area who were hit by tornadoes, or know people who were.  How do we cope emotionally with loss of homes, farms, property and loved ones months after the fact?  There’s usually an overabundance of sympathy and help offered right after a disaster, but as time goes on, people tend to forget these victims, yet many may still be feeling sadness, anger and other emotions.

The editor is right.  Even though time passes and the disaster doesn’t make the news anymore, the emotional aftermath can linger.  Restoration of the physical property helps, but the emotional toll from the loss of loved ones and other emotional injuries often remain.  

Recovery is a long term process.   Emotional recovery usually takes longer than repairing or replacing damaged and destroyed property.

AgriWellness, Inc., the nonprofit organization that I directed for a decade, managed state and federally funded Crisis Counseling Programs for the state of Iowa for many years.  We responded to numerous declared disasters, including tornadoes, floods, and the effects of Hurricane Katrina on Iowa.  Our aid always was free of charge, confidential and competently provided by trained workers who were farmers, teachers, and folks from all walks of life who were from the same backgrounds as those affected, including minorities.

I wish to give credit to FEMA and other federal officials, the dedicated staff of the Iowa Department of Human Services, the Iowa Department of Public Health, Iowa’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the Iowa Disaster Human Resource Council and, most importantly, the people we served, for many of the thoughts in this column.

Every state and Canadian province has a disaster plan that indicates how disasters are handled, including the provision of behavioral health counseling.  Iowa has a Ready Reserve of trained Disaster Behavioral Health Responders who are available to assist the people of Iowa with emotional issues.

Even though every disaster is different and everyone experiences the disaster differently, it helps to know that being upset a while after the disaster has occurred is normal.  The graph below illustrates the typical phases of recovery.
Usually we muster our resources and work very hard to take care of immediate needs after the tragic event.  We get medical help for those who need it, and sometimes that includes us.  We try to clear roads, restore power lines, set up shelters and return our lives to normal as quickly as possible.

As the graph shows, we wear out after a while.  It’s normal to become frustrated, even angry at what we sometimes perceive as lack of concern by officials.  Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often sets in.  See the Farm and Livestock Directory columns for the weeks of June 16 and June 23, 2012 for information about PTSD.

Often a good portion of our disillusionment during the Recovery Phase is because we can’t go back to the way we were.  We become cautious and alarmed easily when reminders of the disaster recur, like predictions for new storms.  

We change only gradually.  Change is usually difficult.  Our outlook after the trauma is necessarily different.  We go on with life, but with accommodations for the losses we experienced.  Sometimes making these necessary changes takes years.

What helps?  Talking through our losses and grieving outwardly (e.g., crying, conducting memorials for loved ones, participating in church and community meetings and anniversary ceremonies) help.  Knowing that others care and can assist with the burden of our losses help us to heal.  

State and federally funded Crisis Counseling Programs usually have two phases: An Immediate Crisis Counseling Program during which psychological first aid is provided and a Long Term Recovery Program that may continue for as long as needed.  Many of the Katrina Crisis Counseling Programs continued for several years.

Crisis counseling has become an empirically validated best practice for dealing with disasters of all types.  That’s why countries that experienced disasters recently (e.g., Japan after their tsunami) mobilized extensive crisis counseling projects to aid the earthquake and tsunami victims.

We don’t always have to confer with a trained counselor.  We can help each other.  We benefit from talking through emotional concerns, obtaining understanding from others who care and being in a safe environment.

And, it helps to know the emotional turmoil eventually subsides, as the graph shows.



– By Mike Rosmann, Ph.D.