Coping Emotionally After Tropical Storm Irene

12/06/11 12:50PM By Nancy Eve Cohen, Patti Daniels
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VPR/Nancy Eve Cohen
Sonja Hakala used to love to walk in the woods below her house before Tropical Storm Irene came through. She points out the muddy debris left behind by Irene.

(Host)   For many people who lost homes and businesses and watched rushing water tear through their towns during Tropical Storm Irene, there was a sense of terror and then loss. Although much of the recovery has been physical - cleaning out mud, tearing down walls, rebuilding roads, there's also an emotional recovery underway as VPR's Nancy Cohen reports.

(Cohen) Sonja Hakala has always loved walking along the White River just below the cozy home she shares with her husband and son in West Hartford.

But that all changed August 28th.

(Hakala)  "Somewhere between 2:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon we began to understand this was not an ordinary rainstorm and that we were in big trouble."

(Cohen) The river climbed, snatching away nine cords of stacked wood. Then it surrounded her house on three sides. Hakala's husband stayed that night, but she says she was terrified, and went with her son up the hill to their neighbors

(Hakala)  "And I laid down on that bed that night and I was rigid with fear! I didn't know whether I was going to wake up in the morning a homeless widow or not?" 

VPR/Nancy Eve Cohen
The flood eroded part of a bank that Sonja Hakala's house sits on in West Hartford.
(Cohen)  Hakala was relieved to see her husband in the morning, walking up their road, which was covered in several feet of mud. But she could see right inside a nearby house. The front had been ripped off

(Hakala)  "You start looking around and you feel like you've looked through the looking glass in Alice in Wonderland and you've woken up in someone else's nightmare. This is where you live this is your home, but everything has shifted under your feet." 

(Cohen)  And that's no metaphor. The lower northwest corner of Hakala's house sits on a bank that took the brunt of the flood. That bank is eroding. Hakala, who's a writer, had an office in a room that sits on that bank.  The office is unsafe now. 

(Hakala)  "The next time we have a flood, and it doesn't have to be as big as Irene, we've got a lot of trouble here."

(Cohen)  Hakala says she felt bewildered and exhausted when she first sought help from FEMA and others. And she still isn't sure how the house will be fixed or paid for. She's coping by going for walks in the hills nearby, far from the river. On occasion she goes down and shrieks at the river. She hasn't sought counseling but from time to time she has touched base with a friend who is a therapist.  She compares her experience to grieving for someone she loved.

(Hakala) "I've heard many people say, and I feel the same way, we no longer trust the river. She took something away from us. That's why when it rains you get really nervous. And you watch the water closely."

(Cohen)  80 miles south of here in Marlboro, Peggy Tiffany has also watched closely.

(Tiffany)  "The brook was like this nice quiet whispery sound.  Now the sound of the brook isn't very relaxing."

VPR/Nancy Eve Cohen
The Marlboro Branch Brook ate away 60 feet of Peggy Tiffany's front yard.
(Cohen)  This is Tiffany speaking to me just two weeks after the flood when the Marlboro Branch Brook jumped its banks, eating away a lush sanctuary that buffered her home from the water.

(Tiffany) "The boulders were churning like thunder and you'd see these tall white pines shoot into the air and shoot down the river and just watching all that the fierceness of it and how you didn't know what would happen and would you be safe?"

(Cohen)  The brook rose within 15 feet of her porch. Right after the flood she couldn't sleep for more than two hours at a time

(Tiffany)  "For a while I couldn't eat anything but rice or oatmeal because my stomach was in such knots. Now I'm back.  I can eat again. But it's just like you want to shut down.  I can't sit still. It's hard to think and focus.  I want to move all the time."

(Cohen)  The force of the water carried away whole bridges, isolating Tiffany and her neighbors. For several weeks she had to bicycle to get to a road she could drive on.  At first she didn't want to make a big deal out of her feelings because some people had bigger losses.

(Tiffany)  "I feel like I don't want to talk about it because so many people have it so much worse then me.  I mean people whose houses were taken away or flooded, and sludge. I was lucky.  I still have a home to go to."

(Cohen)  Today Peggy Tiffany is sitting on a newly-built stone slope that separates her home from the brook

Tiffany is used to thinking of herself as strong and independent. She's a business consultant who regularly travels the globe. In fact she was in Japan in March right after the big earthquake and tzunami.

But after Irene, her anger started to soar unexpectedly. And she had other symptoms. So she started counseling in October

(Tiffany)  "And I think I just felt constantly tired. It just felt so demanding, and this overwhelming sadness. And I guess to sum it up I would say I just felt scared and very vulnerable and powerless."

VPR/Nancy Eve Cohen
The White River rose about 30 feet during the flood, leaving behind mud-encrusted debris.
(Cohen)  A lot of people in the flood zone have experienced these types of emotions. Psychiatrist Kevin Buchanan of the Clara Martin Center says in a disaster a person's stress system goes into over drive.

(Buchanan)  "It's been cranked up. And that's causing these emotional symptoms, these physical symptoms.  Over time that system is going to calm back down."

(Cohen)  Buchanan says how long it takes for the symptoms to go away depends on how close someone lived to the flood waters and their own make up

(Buchanan)  "They may not go away completely. Or they may go away, but certain things like hearing a hard rain or being near a raging brook or something like that may trigger those memories or those emotions that somebody was experiencing nearer to the event. But in general things are going to improve overtime.  And if not, that would be time to seek more professional help."

(Cohen)  Peggy Tiffany found a counselor who specializes in trauma. She says the therapy is giving her strategies to help her sleep again.

(Tiffany)  "I've been listening to meditation tapes and one of the things the tapes do is have you focus inward, sort of a self-hypnosis so you don't notice the sounds outside.  And I find that's really helping."

(Cohen)  Although Tiffany still wakes up a couple of times a night she goes back to sleep more quickly now. And the therapy has given her other strategies to make her feel safe. She can concentrate now and the anger has dissipated. But recently when it rained one night she had her eye on the brook

(Tiffany)  "Nature has always been where I went to for renewal and peace and serenity more than any church ever.  And I realized that I sort of felt betrayed. That what I love, now nature scared me to death"

(Cohen)  Now, Tiffany finds herself contemplating a big question

(Tiffany)  "What does nature have to teach me about what happened?  And the only thing I've gotten out of it so far is life is uncertain, and things happen all the time.  And this is just... I have to learn how to look at change and uncertainty...make friends with uncertainty."

(Cohen)  Tiffany says the counseling has helped her put worries about the future aside and instead concentrate on feeling safe and protected from harm. 

For VPR News I'm Nancy Cohen.


Note:  Vermonters in need of counseling can call the Health Department at 855-767-8800

Our reporting on the recovery from Irene is supported, in part, by the VPR Journalism Fund. 



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