The staff at Project Hope meets regularly with flood victims dealing with anxiety and depression, trying to find ways to help them cope.
Sometimes their advice could be as simple as a recommendation to walk regularly. When one woman expressed sadness over the loss of her bingo game, Project Hope helped her find another place to play.
“Just as it takes time to rebuild our communities and homes, it takes time to rebuild our emotions,” said Deborah Coyle, who coordinates the program.
The Project Hope Crisis Counseling Project was created in October by the state Office of Mental Health, with the goal of providing short-term, confidential and supportive counseling to people affected by Tropical Storm Irene. The program serves disaster victims throughout the Capital Region and is based in Schoharie County, where much of its energies are focused.
With crisis counseling, one of the goals is to help people adapt to the stress in their lives, accept change and move forward.
“You can learn to be resilient,” said Julie Capobianco, a team leader for Project Hope. “You can develop skills.”
Project Hope is funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The federal government routinely funds such programs after a disaster area has been established, though each program has a different name. The program set up in Binghamton to assist victims of Tropical Storm Lee, for instance, is called Project Renew.
Project Hope is based at Catholic Charities of Schoharie County, and falls under the supervision of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese. It is designed to be temporary and will run through the anniversary date of Irene’s flooding in August. The staff, which includes two team leaders and 11 crisis counselors, is local, drawn from areas impacted by the storm. “We have a knowledge of the people, the county and the area,” said Capobianco.
Project Hope staffers have canvassed on foot areas heavily impacted by flooding, going door to door in an effort to find people in need and talk to them about their problems.
“We go to the people,” Capobianco said. “Very few people go out and seek counseling services. But they want to tell their stories. They want to talk.”
Many people have lingering fears as a result of the flood, she said. They worry about being flooded again, for example, and experience anxiety when it rains.
After a disaster, people go through a number of emotional phases, Coyle said. She provided a chart depicting the highs and lows that people typically experience. Early on, there’s a sense of community cohesion and optimism, but this is followed by a period of disillusionment, where people continue to struggle with the loss of their homes, mounting exhaustion, and the work of rebuilding their lives.
“There’s a coming together, and then reality sets in,” Coyle said.
Around the one-year anniversary, the overall mood is on the upswing, people are feeling more positive about their lives and there’s a strong sense of embarking on a new beginning.
Coyle said that right now some are in the disillusionment phase. “People are mourning the loss of their community,” she said.
Rev. Sherri Meyer-Veen, who chairs Schoharie Area Long Term, a nonprofit organization dedicated to flood recovery, said Project Hope has provided a valuable service. “They were real, real early on the scene, making themselves known to the community,” she said.
Meyer-Veen is a pastor at Schoharie Reformed Church, which provides a free, daily lunch to flood victims, volunteers and community members. She said Project Hope staff have been a presence at those meals, speaking to people about their concerns.
Many people are still struggling, Meyer-Veen said. Some are dealing with “extreme exhaustion. They’re frustrated and overwhelmed.”
Between October and February, Project Hope provided 3,509 primary services, which include individual and group crisis counseling sessions. Since March, the program has provided 755 such services.
“We’ve been busy,” Capobianco said. There are still a lot of displaced people, sad because they are not in their homes. Sometimes people are sad even though they have returned home, because their homes are different.”
“People who have moved back home aren’t necessarily happy,” Coyle said.
Project Hope has also been active in schools, meeting with children affected by the flood.
Catholic Charities Senior Services in Schenectady County provides crisis case management to flood victims in Schenectady County and currently has two case managers dedicated to the task. In the immediate aftermath of the flood, this often entailed making sure people’s basic needs were met — that they had food or a safe place to stay.
More recently, the case managers have been assisting seniors who are the victims of scams — who paid people to do work on their homes that was never finished, for instance. They are also providing financial assistance.
“We walk beside families that are going through the recovery process,” said Carol Fallon, a disaster case manager for Catholic Charities. “We provide support throughout the process.”
She said FEMA helps families make sure their homes are safe enough to return to, but “there’s a big gap between that and having a bed with sheets on it.”
“We’ve found that people are so grateful for any type of support and so worried about their neighbors and community,” Fallon said.
Initially, the case managers were working with about 120 people, but that number has declined to about 60. “We’re starting to wind down,” said Deborah Damm O’Brien, executive director of Catholic Charities Senior Services.
Damm O’Brien said some flood victims have “victim fatigue.”
“They’ve been living in crisis for a long time and they’re weary of it,” she said.