Mental Health Challenges of Hurricane Sandy’s Aftermath

Oct 29, 2014, 8:31 AM, Posted by Vicki Philips

View of damage from Hurricane Sandy in N.J. Driftwood Cabana Club, Sea Bright, N.J.

On her 90th birthday, instead of celebrating, Dottie (whose last name is withheld for privacy) lost her home in Superstorm Sandy. Two years later, she is still displaced, living in temporary rentals.

Dottie’s nephew is trying to change that. He’s been rebuilding Dottie's home. Like so many New Jersey residents, he says he’s going to keep at it until reconstruction is complete. Meanwhile, he’s getting some much needed support from groups like BrigStrong, the County Long Term Recovery Group, and the Mental Health Association in New Jersey (MHANJ).

It’s been two long years since Hurricane Sandy slammed into New Jersey on October 29, 2012. As a mental health worker, I still see the aftereffects firsthand.

For the past two years MHANJ, along with other local groups, has been on the front lines of the battle to maintain the mental health of Jersey Shore residents. Thanks to a major RWJF grant, MHANJ has been able to leave the county in a better position to deal with the next disaster:

  • We’ve given mental health first aid training to city employees who, in their daily work, encounter community members with mental health issues.
  • Through our Certified Recovery Support Practitioner program, we’ve improved our ability to reach out to the most vulnerable. Many community members certified through the program have faced mental health challenges themselves, which only increases their credibility.
  • We counseled populations with mental health issues on how to safely evacuate or shelter in place, thus ensuring that first responders will be safer in future emergencies.

RWJF’s grant will continue to be crucial in carrying these initiatives forward. Even today, Atlantic County urgently needs our mental health services.

While acute conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder have been the focus of much of the public conversation around Sandy and mental health, the aftermath also proved uniquely challenging for people who had difficulties before the storm. For many such people, Sandy raised the stakes by putting their basic physical safety at risk. For people whose mental health was otherwise sound before Sandy, the long wait for reliefncontinues to cause unbelievable frustration, anger, and anxiety.

Another story that stands out for me involves two adult sisters who refused to leave a badly damaged home, even after their elderly parents moved out. The sisters had not left their home in 13 years. When my colleagues and I visited, the house was wet and moldy. The sofa sat soaking in the living room and pets were suffering from skin conditions attributed to bacteria. The sisters had gotten along relatively well before Sandy. After the storm, however, staying in the damaged house was downright dangerous. The home was cleaned early on, but the sisters are still waiting for funds to move forward with repairs. We are working closely with one of the sisters, who has a fear of leaving the house.

Nearby, Dottie’s nephew has made sure his aunt can still do one thing she loves: garden. The spring after Sandy he cleared a small plot in her storm-damaged yard. Last week she brought our staff a box of the season’s last tomatoes. Her nephew promises to have her back in her home by Christmas.

Even as we look forward to many more happy homecomings in Atlantic County, people are still struggling. To them we say:

  • Be patient with yourself and the emotional challenges you face
  • Talk with others about your experience
  • Seek support groups
  • Eat well, exercise, and beat stress with healthy behaviors
  • Find support in the community

The last tip is key. We’re all in this together, and finding strength in one another is something we can all do to speed physical and mental recovery.

Learn more about New Jersey Initiatives.