Healing Hurricane Sandy Victims

red cross psychologist in queensred cross psychologist in queensBy Tula Karras

On a blistering morning last June, Danelle Stoppel, a mental-health volunteer with the American Red Cross, spotted a man standing in front of a smoldering structure in Waldo Canyon, CO. It was his home, one of hundreds lost to the wildfires that scorched 18,000 acres. He was holding a burned gas cap in his hand. Something about the way he looked at it, turning it over and over, drew Danelle to him. "I asked him about it," she says. "He told me the cap was the only thing left from an old Datsun he and his 10-year-old son were rehabbing together. He was planning on giving the car to his son when he was old enough to drive," says Danelle.


Talking it Through
Danelle offered him what she says all disaster victims need: a chance to tell his story. "It's the first step in healing," she says. "They need you to hear it. It makes it real for them. And they need you to bear witness to all that they've lost," she says. The man explained that the fire had hit on his son's birthday, right before the boy's party, and he also told her about their house. Then, "You know what the father told me?" she says, incredulously. "That he was going to find another Datsun to work on with his son. That's when I knew this family was going to be OK. They were talking about renewal, about rebuilding their home. I was in awe."

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Danelle meets people during what is often the worst moment of their lives, when the right kind of comfort can make the difference between feeling abandoned and alone or supported and resilient. The Red Cross added trained mental health support personnel like Danelle to their disaster relief services 20 years ago. "We will sometimes accompany volunteers who are providing food and clothing, because that's a way to introduce yourself and let people know you're available," she says.

Helping the Elderly
Danelle, who is 66 and a retired social worker, joined the Red Cross two years ago. Based in her hometown of Philadelphia, she is on call to travel to disaster sites or respond to local crises like fires from April through December. This past fall, Danelle was in the Rockaways and Broad Channel, neighborhoods in New York City where the buildings and homes of entire communities were wiped out by Hurricane Sandy. "What gets me is that so many of the victims are seniors who were already vulnerable and weak, even before the storm hit," she says. The devastation is relentless. "Every day I see more and more damage-it's a visual nightmare. And when you're older or sick and don't see a future in front of you, it's much harder to recover. These people thought they'd live out their lives here. Now they have nowhere to go and no possessions." While many consider themselves lucky to have escaped with their lives, Danelle says the loss of belongings is no small thing: "Photographs, mementos, antiques...they keep us connected to people and to memories."

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On the Scene
In a disaster area, Danelle walks up to people, identifies herself and asks very directly, "How are you doing?", her tone and expression conveying a genuine desire to know the answer. She often places her hand on the person's arm or shoulder in a gesture of comfort, passing on a strength that lets people know she can handle whatever they are about to say. Part of what Danelle is trained to do is to step out of herself and become what the person needs-an ear, a shoulder to cry on, or someone to help them envision a happy future despite present conditions. "Not everyone is open to sharing feelings with a stranger," she says. "If they don't meet my gaze or cast their eyes down, I just say 'Be well' and move on. But often, they'll meet my gaze or reach out to shake my hand."

In November in New York City, Danelle met Olivia, an older woman who had spent three days knee-deep in water in her flooded house, and who was weak and slurring her words. Rescue workers thought Olivia might have had a stroke. "She was afraid to go to the hospital," recalls Danelle. "She was emotional and exhausted and couldn't be convinced that she wouldn't have to pay for the visit and the ambulance. I used every trick in the book to get her to go to a doctor." Nothing worked. "Finally, I said, 'Olivia, will you do it for me?' And that got her. She wouldn't go for herself, but we'd become buddies and she did it for me."

A Personal Touch
Danelle says her own experience with loss has helped her connect with the people she meets. "I recognized myself and my daughter in these survivors." Four years ago, Danelle's grandson, Hunter, was killed by a neighbor's truck. "Hunter was 2½ and very high-energy, and he was chasing a cat who'd gone under the truck. The neighbor had no idea he was there, and ran over him. It's the worst thing that can happen to a person, to lose a child."

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Danelle grieved for Hunter in a way she hadn't when her husband died two years before. "My husband lived a long life. It was hard, but with Hunter it was worse-he had his entire life in front of him. And I was also grieving for my daughter. Hunter was the light of her life. As a parent, all you want to do is help your child, but I had no frame of reference for this, and I felt helpless." But Danelle watched as her daughter, Lori, did more than just survive: She used the tragedy to help pass legislation in Louisiana, where she lives, that requires organ donor status on driver's licenses. "Lori had Hunter's organs donated-it was a big part of the healing process for all of us." The resilience Danelle witnessed in her daughter is what she aims to facilitate in disaster survivors.

Recovery, of course, can take years, and first responders like Danelle are only on the scene for a few weeks or months. Danelle says it can be difficult to move on to another disaster without knowing what happened to the people she met at such an intense time. But the long-term health of a community is in the hands of the community itself. "You see it over and over again across the country: people and communities coming together," she says.

Danelle recalls helping at a recent building collapse in Philadelphia that caused a woman to lose her home. "Within hours, dozens of neighbors had stepped forward to offer her a place to stay. By that night, the woman was comfortably set up in a neighbor's home cooking dinner for the whole neighborhood!" Scenes like this keep Danelle going. "Seeing how people survive, how they figure it out-it's just amazing. I am amazed by what I see."

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