There are two words Shore residents commonly use to describe the emotional impact of Superstorm Sandy – stress and frustration.
Homeowners report that the rebuilding process feels like an additional full-time job, as they try to get their lives and homes back together.
“It’s been an emotional roller coaster on many levels, physically, mentally,” said Longport resident Chrissy Roche. “Our house is still not back, like many people.”
But pinpointing the impact of this additional stress can be tricky.
Drive down the street in parts of the Jersey Shore that flooded during Sandy, and everything may seem all right from the outside, but a closer look may reveal work permits taped to the window and that the homes are gutted inside. Looking for the emotional impact of the storm is a similar process; experts explain that natural disasters have lingering effects on the mental health, but they can be difficult to identify from a distance.
“There are those individuals who you meet them and they feel supported, they feel hopeful,” said Jaime Angelini, a counselor and team leader with New Jersey Hope and Healing. “Then there’s a group of folks who, ‘I’m stuck’ and that’s how they explain it. 'I’m just stuck and I can’t move past this.'”
New Jersey Hope and Healing is part of the Mental Health Association in New Jersey, funded with over $15 million in grants after Sandy to counsel those impacted by the storm. Thus far, the organization’s counselors have had over 100,000 “encounters” with residents in impacted areas — some quick exchanges, some longer counseling sessions — to encourage people to talk about their experiences during the storm and rebuilding.
Angelini says roughly 20 percent of people counseled have had significant changes to their activity or behavior since the storm.
“Or [they] are maybe using alcohol, using drugs because it’s a way to deal with — or not deal with — the day to day,” she said.
In addition to counseling, Hope and Healing staff will also help residents overwhelmed by the rebuilding process. Managing state and federal grant applications, insurance claims, FEMA ID numbers, among others, can have dramatic financial impacts and cause additional stress for residents.
“There's just so many things that you don't know and you're moving to the next thing and you always wonder when the next shoe is going to drop,” said attorney Ken Wilbur, who owns a home in Manasquan.
While preparing his primary home for Sandy, Wilbur fell off the roof and broke his back. Then his home in Manasquan flooded during the storm. This winter, the pipes froze and burst. He had additional water leaks and a gas leak while repairing the house. Just a few weeks ago, he found out his recommended FEMA elevation has increased, which will dramatically increase his insurance premiums.
But despite the seemingly endless list of setbacks, Wilbur is making progress on his home and he’s coping with the additional stress.
“It’s frustrating, it’s exhausting, and it’s very disheartening,” said Chrissy Roche, a pet sitter, while volunteering to rebuild a Ventnor ball field on a recent weekend. “You’re behind the eight-ball financially. You try to do what you can, little bit by little bit.”
She said helping others impacted by the storm helps her process her own frustrations. She also leans on her church for support.
Ventnor resident Lisa Egrie reported that she’s taking the frustrations of rebuilding in stride, but her nine-year-old son gets anxious and clingy during rainstorms now. He lost a lot of friends whose families had to move away due to storm damage
“The community on a whole is very tired and very gun shy,” Egrie said. “We’re all doing everything we can to rebuild, but it seems like we’re already forgotten.”
“Most people will be resilient,” said Dr. Joseph Boscarino, a senior scientist and researcher with Geisinger Clinic in Danville, Penn.
Boscarino said additional stress may have some physical ramifications, such as trouble sleeping or higher blood pressure. In rare cases, those traumatized by the storm may develop anxiety disorders or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. People who were vulnerable before the storm are more likely to have a longer-term emotional or mental health issues, such as those with pre-existing conditions or economic problems, or those who lack strong social networks.
But brief counseling sessions, like those offered by Hope and Healing, can help minimize the long-term consequences.
In studying the emotional and mental health impact of 9/11, Boscarino said he was surprised to find that people who meet briefly with a counselor, often through their work, were much better off than those who didn’t.
“They had very few problems, including lower depression, lower PTSD, lower anxiety, lower alcohol problems,” he said.
To access New Jersey Hope and Healing Services for toll-free, confidential mental health information and referrals: 877-294-HELP (4357) (TTY: 877-294-4356).