Impact of Sandy, what you’ll see and what you won’t

October 2012 will be remembered for superstorm Sandy and it’s massive destruction, especially by those living in The Bahamas, Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, New Jersey and New York. In the United States alone nine states are struggling to restore basic services. East Coast streets submerged under sea water and heaps of matchsticks that once formed someone’s home are piled high, the images are beamed to an eager world (that would be us then).

Men dispose of shopping carts full of food damaged by Storm Sandy at the Fairway supermarket in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in New York, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012. The food was contaminated by flood waters that rose to approximately four feet in the store during the storm. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

It’s a heady time for news journalists; the final days of the American election are playing out; Obama and Romney fighting neck and neck to take the White House, tension and suspense are mounting. But then you already know all about that.
Over the coming weeks you will be less likely to hear or see so much of the devastation wrought by Sandy; it will no longer be ‘news’ and other stories will inevitably be the headlines and yet millions of people will find their lives disrupted or forever changed.

So what is it like for them to be caught up in Sandy and what is about to unfold? If you were paying attention to the news in September 2008, you may recall hurricane Ike scored a direct hit on Houston. The eye of the hurricane alone took in the whole city and the six hundred mile wide storm left five million people without power. My family were British expats living in a suburb on the west side of the city. The media reported that it ‘could have been worse’ and for this reason you may not remember hearing about it. Ike claimed over 200 lives but as a news story it was somewhat eclipsed by comparison to the tragic loss of life wrought by Hurricane Katrina only a few years earlier (just down the Gulf Coast from Houston). For Houstonians, the devastation left by Ike barrelling through, was significant for them.

Downtown Houston, hurricane Ike approaching

Knowing the hurricane was coming was scary enough, living through it – hunkering down in our closet, hearing the high pressure hose rain lashing the windows, ominous thuds as branches and a tree fell on our house, huddling together in the stifling hot darkness without power, straining to hear commentary on a wind up radio pressed between our ears, was certainly an adrenalin fuelled experience, one to tell the grand-children about.

The aftermath was a whole different story; initially, so thankful to be safe, our focus was on the clear up operation and getting the tree that was lifting our roof tiles removed quickly. Optimism for a swift return to power evaporated by the second week, flooding was widespread. My memoir, ‘An Inconvenient Posting: An expat wife’s memoir of lost identity’ refers to the power cables in our neighbourhood, ‘usually neat swags of black cable looked like balls of knitting wool, unfathomable to unravel, and a massive headache for the electricity workers trying to repair the damage’.

Sandy has brought the memories back; no fridge, no cups of tea or fresh food, venturing out in desperation to find some ice into a world where nothing was normal; trees and signboards littered the street. With traffic lights out, the cars took it in turns to move ahead at the intersections – in Britain there would be a more ‘whoever is bravest (or more pushy depending on how you view it) goes first’ approach, for a nation committed to forming a queue it’s disappointing, so I was very impressed by the orderly, stoic attitude I encountered! At night the children were scared of the dark so we slept together in one room – a necessary safety precaution anyway, negotiating your home is not as easy as you might think without illumination – we were covered in bruises.

The heat was at times unbearable, but we got on with it, because we heard on our wind up radio that others were much worse off. And strangely, without any television or computer, we had no images beyond our own imagination. If you had a phone signal and the means to charge it you might have spoken to family far away who would have given you an update from the media coverage. Something I found particularly strange and frustrating; there I was living through a disaster and yet I couldn’t see it beyond my own subdivision of roads.

Our little community became just that; we got to know each other, cleared up together, commiserated together – people were shaken to the core and they needed to re tell their story of Ike, to try and make sense of it. There was a night time curfew in place because of fears of looting; those of us with no family to flee to needed to stick together. 

You might imagine that life returns to normal a few weeks after such a crisis, but it doesn’t, not really. The wake of such an event plays out at every level. All activities are disrupted, appointments rescheduled or opportunities lost, everything is backlogged. Businesses shut down, unable to recover from sudden loss of profits; familiar places will be closed ‘until further notice owing to flood damage’. Insurance claims take months or even years to settle. All around Houston after Ike, ‘sky-blue plastic ‘tarps’ (tarpaulins) sat on roofs like great shower caps, covering homes with damaged roofs to protect them from further leaks.’ Years later, adverts were running on the local networks offering to help with compensation claims. Reminders were all around us.

After a few months life did return to normality, it was just a slightly different one, it’s fair to say a unique life experience had been integrated. In our family, the losses were temporary  (except for the felled tree) and we could move on. For those who have experienced something more difficult to reconcile, it will take significantly more time and understanding. I hope they get the help they need to do so.

You might like to read my article about our family’s experience of hurricane Ike, written in 2008, published in The Telegraph’s Expat section: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/expat/4205444/Houston-struggles-to-recover-from-the-night-Ike-came-calling.html

Are you in transition? I hope my 15 survival tips will help…..

Presented at the 2010 Families in Global Transition Conference

www.figt.org

TIPS TO BOOST EMOTIONAL RESILIENCE

I have outlined some pro-active strategies for coping with losses.  Pick the ones that are most relevant to you.

Emotional Outlets:

  1. Try to make a conscious effort to think about how you feel.  Allow yourself 10 minutes to feel it before moving on with your day.  It may help to make time to remember people or places.  Ask yourself “What am I feeling right now?”  You could write about your feelings to help shift them or tell someone how you feel.
  2. Try writing a few lines before you go to sleep each night – keeping a journal of whatever comes into your head.  You might want to thinkabout a) how you felt as your reflect on the day and b) why you think you feel that way?
  3. Meditation– if you’ve no experience you could try one free on line; try Googling “chill meditation podcasts.”
  4. Creative pursuits are a time honoured way of relaxing and communicating.  Is there something you’ve always fancied trying? Why not try painting, photography or writing about your unusual life?
  5. Our sense of smell is most powerful where memories are concerned – bergamot always reminds me of family holidays in France.  Find out which scents energize you or make you feel good and keep them close by.
  6. Listen to music that touches your soul.  Ask yourself what mood you are in and choose something to match it.
  7. Studies have shown that prayer can help people heal, if you believe in a higher power then pray!

What can we do to help maintain a healthy attitude to attachments?

Practical Guidance:

1         Say your goodbyes before you leave to allow for closure, in doing so you will be providing your children with a great role model.  You can follow up by writing a note or call someone you wish you had said goodbye to but didn’t.

2         Take photographs of places which have been special or you have simply visited regularly.  Children will benefit from being able to see the images of the place where they once lived and the people who inhabited it.

Create a memory box or scrapbook and fill it with photographs, souvenirs and mementos.

3         If possible, make regular visits (at least annually for young children) to stay in touch with family/ long term friends, as well as the places and culture that you wish to be connected with.

4         Talk about important people, such as grandparents, to keep their presence alive.  Encourage correspondence – this doesn’t have to be a letter, try sending artwork, press cuttings, school magazines etc.

5         If possible stay connected by maintaining electronic/IT provision for yourself and your children with:

Telephone calls.

Email

MS Messenger and Skype allow use of a webcam so that the two parties can see each other while chatting (both are free).

Facebook  is a way of supporting networking, particularly amongst teens. You could help your child set it up to ensure appropriate use of security functions.

6         Teenagers

Teenagers are at an exciting stage of their life.  The changes are profound – being physical, emotional, intellectual and even spiritual.  It can be exhilarating and also overwhelming as they sit between their childhood and adulthood.

Accepting a major life change which has been imposed upon them can be tough and cause mood swings and a feeling of being out of control of their life.  They might be angry and feel lost or deserted, depressed even.  These are natural feelings that need expression.

If the move was unexpected or sudden, they may experience shock and disbelief as part of their adjustment process.

As for all ages of children, parents need to encourage an open dialogue with them and other trusted adults, possibly teachers or counselors.  Help arrange introductions to friends of a similar age group.  Expression through creative pursuits may be another outlet eg music, literature, writing, poetry and art.

7 Children Aged 6 – 12

Children will need to be ‘held’ emotionally as their world changes beyond recognition.  Chat to them about what might happen as the move is impending.

Once you know something for certain communicate it to them, for example, some facts about the kind of destination you are going to.  Be honest about unknowns and ambiguities; if possible offer some idea of when you will be able to tell them more information.  The objective is to encourage trust and a feeling that they are stakeholders in the move.

Some uncertainties can be discussed in an exciting way, for example, the opportunity to visit interesting places and making new friends.

When a child is sad or grieving allow them to express this fully without pressure to feel cheerful.  Acknowledge that there will be endings and losses for all of you.

8 Young Children Under 6

It is often said that young children and infants are easy to move around as they don’t really know what’s happening.   Perhaps because an infant’s communication skills are not developed and their ability to understand and express what is going on is limited.  But we now know through scientific research on the function of the brain, that bonds/attachments are formed after a baby is a few weeks old.  Infants may be aware of changes to their environment and feel unsettled and likewise young children may be experiencing losses but are unable to communicate their feelings to you.

In young children, making time for physical interactive play helps to stimulate the emotion-regulating areas in the brain.

When your child is distressed, prompt cuddling and soothing will calm them by releasing anti anxiety hormones (Gamma-aminobutyric acid).  This approach has been shown to help avoid oversensitivity to stress later in life, such as separation anxiety and panic attacks.

Maintaining habits and elements of predictability in their life will make the child feel safe and secure.