Kathy Keese is retired, but ever since flooding devastated her community, she’s been working constantly.
A licensed master social worker, Keese has been visiting flood victims, talking to them and making sure they’re OK. She’s also spoken to volunteers about how to be sensitive to the raw emotions of the people they’re helping, and debriefed volunteers who spent time in hard-hit areas.
“I offer as much listening time as I can,” Keese said. “I try to see where their heads are at.”
Keese is one of several social workers who are volunteering their time in Schoharie County in the aftermath of the August flooding that destroyed homes and communities.
“I started out in the village of Schoharie, and if I heard about anyone in the outlying areas — if I heard someone wasn’t doing well — I would drive out to see them,” Keese said. Occasionally she hears about a flood victim “who spent all day crying because they don’t know what to do. Many of them are elderly, and have great difficulty letting strangers come into their homes, and seeing their homes ripped apart.”
Mental health issues are an emerging concern in areas heavily affected by flooding.
“That’s one of the things that’s growing,” said Sarah Goodrich, who coordinates the volunteer efforts within the Schoharie Central School District, based at Schoharie Reformed Church.
For those affected by flooding, normal feelings of sadness and loss are often exacerbated by the frustrations and roadblocks inherent in trying to move forward. Many victims remain stuck in a limbo state, waiting to learn whether they will be able to rebuild. Insurance denials are common, but upsetting. Delays in starting the rebuilding can also trigger strong emotions.
lunch and talk
Every day, Schoharie Reformed Church provides a free hot lunch to anyone who wants one. The idea is to relieve people of the burden of cooking and preparing meals, but also to create a space where people can gather, talk to each other and receive support. There are usually volunteers circulating during meals and reaching out to people who seem particularly despondent.
“Everybody understands, because everybody’s going through it,” Goodrich said. “People come and talk about their experiences, and it’s important that they keep doing that.”
Local clergy are also making a concerted effort to reach out to residents and make sure they’re doing OK.
The Rev. Sherri Meyer-Veen, who serves as co-pastor at Schoharie Reformed Church with her husband, Michael, has been counseling flood victims.
“It’s obvious that this level of catastrophe takes a different toll on different people,” Meyer-Veen said. “Everybody is in a different place.” For people who were struggling before the flood, “this catastrophic event has pushed them over the edge.” The flood has also reminded people of other catastrophic events in their lives — of divorces, deaths and other struggles. And whenever it rains, the tension and anxiety in the community increase.
“Normally rational people have started making irrational decisions,” Meyer-Veen said. “When it rains, they might say, ‘Quick, run for the hills.’ The levels of stress and anxiety are off the charts.”
She advises people not to make big decisions too quickly.
“We keep saying, ‘Take baby steps. Don’t take any big steps when you’re in extreme stress,’ ” she said. “People are coming back, but they’re feeling overwhelmed with trying to plan out the larger picture. We tell them to take one small project at a time.”
The flood was particularly traumatic for seniors, Meyer-Veen said. “They’ve lived here a long time, they’ve never seen anything like this and they feel like they don’t have the physical capacity to deal with it.”
Meyer-Veen said that the community and the flood victims are going through a grieving process that is similar to what people experience after a death. Her message, she said, is one of hope — that this too will pass, that life and loved ones are most important.
strength from crisis
For the church, she said, the flood has been an opportunity “to share God’s love.” But this isn’t always easy. “We’re starting from a huge hole,” said Meyer-Veen, who lost her own home in the flood. “We’ve got dilapidated houses, and huge mortgages and no money. But we’ve got to deal with it together and, by the grace of God, we will rebuild and we will be stronger.”
“The church has never had a greater opportunity to make an impact in the community than right now,” Meyer-Veen said.
Schoharie Recovery, a coalition that has formed to spearhead rebuilding in the community, has started surveying flood victims, asking them to tell their stories with the goal of gaining a better sense of what people are going to need to rebuild.
When the volunteers talk to people, they “red-flag” those who seem depressed and in need of a follow-up visit; some victims are still living in vehicles, Meyer-Veen said. Volunteers also try to coordinate and stay in touch with the county offices of mental health and aging.
Schoharie County recently received a grant to fund crisis management for flood victims, and training will start next week, according to Cassandra Ethington, a personnel officer with Schoharie County Emergency Management. The idea is to help people who are experiencing anger, depression and other feelings associated with loss and trauma.
Ethington said that those affected by the flood are dealing with depression, but also with frustration. “Now they’re getting their houses mucked out, and they’ve got money to rebuild, but they can’t find a contractor,” she said. “We don’t have enough contractors. We’re looking for plumbers to come out and teach homeowners basic plumbing, so they can do some of this stuff themselves.”
And she said that mental health will be an ongoing concern.
“We’re in the process of moving into our long-term recovery phase,” Ethington she said. “Just look at what the people of Katrina are going through, and this is like our mini-Katrina.”
Volunteers also try to educate people about resources.
Goodrich said many people still don’t realize that volunteers “can help you with anything. We can help you mow your lawn, if that’s what you need.”
Once people begin to realize that help is available and see small improvements in their situation, they’re more likely to feel a little better, she said.
Keese said that some victims still haven’t applied for assistance with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and remain unaware that every day a free meal is served at Schoharie Reformed Church.
Keese said she has spoken with volunteers about the importance of being sensitive and empathetic. Some flood victims have complained about volunteer groups who cheer when they succeed in, say, tearing down the roof of a damaged home, she said.
Keese said last week that she was in the process of checking in with people she had met with earlier, and who seemed in need of a follow-up visit.
She said she recently dealt with a man who was living in his truck and didn’t want to leave.
“I asked him if he could take a risk,” she said. “I asked him to come to us and see if there were some steps he could take. I gave him a lead on a place to live, and I gave him some meal cards.”
Initially, he said he didn’t want the meal cards. “He said, ‘This is my pride,’ ” she said. “But I said, ‘This is not about pride, this is about need. This is a situation you’ve been handed through no fault of your own.’ ”
If Keese senses that someone needs ongoing counseling, she speaks with a member of the family, or a close friend.
“This has been an incredible thing to be a part of,” she said. “We will be here until the last home has been rebuilt.”
Keese’s home wasn’t damaged in the flood, and in the immediate aftermath she allowed friends to stay in her home and served between 10 and 25 people dinner every night, cooking meals on a gas stove powered by a small generator and allowing people to take cold showers and jump in the pool. For a while, she and her family felt guilty about their good fortune. “But then I said, ‘What more can we do? Our friends have nothing, and we’re doing as much as we can. We can’t go blow up our house because of the flood. We have to help those who need it.”
Goodrich said that she and the other volunteers avoid becoming overwhelmed by taking breaks and supporting each other.
“Sometimes you just need to get away from it,” Goodrich said.
John Forsyth, a professor of psychology and director of the Anxiety Disorders Research Program at the University at Albany, said that it’s common for people who have experienced a natural disaster to experience a range of reactions, including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. “Some people will withdraw, and other people will reach out,” he said.
One of the most important things people who have experienced a traumatic event can do is seek out social support, Forsyth said. “They should connect with other people,” he said. “They should talk with a spouse, or a partner, or a doctor or a nurse.”
The community also needs to respond by connecting victims with resources, and making sure people know that what they’re experiencing is normal, Forsyth said.
Common responses to a traumatic event include difficulty sleeping, sadness, being hyper-alert or vigilant and feelings of panic and worry. “What else are people supposed to feel after something traumatic happens?” he said. “It’s normal to feel the loss.”
But there does come a point when certain behaviors and feelings become worrisome, Forsyth said.
“When those reactions start to spill over four to six months after an event, and leave people living in the past, the trick is to find a way to move forward. You need to ask whether people are sort of stuck, whether what they’re experiencing is beyond a normal reaction to the event.”
In order to avoid becoming stuck, people should focus on “what you can do now to go forward,” Forsyth said. “If you’re looking in the rear-view mirror, it’s hard to focus on what you can do now.”