Hearing Disaster Survivors’ Grief and Worry, Helping Them Recover

Joann Hale | February 27, 2014

The February 18 meeting with survivors of January’s ice jam flood in West Seneca, N.Y., was seething with raw emotion. About 100 people filled the pews at St. John’s Lutheran Church. I was at the podium, talking about the long-term recovery process following disaster, when audience members started shouting out questions and accusations.

“You don’t understand! People can’t live in their houses!”

“Where is the government? Where is the Army Corps of Engineers?”

“You tell us volunteers are coming in this spring to help us rebuild? We need them now!”

“What good is long-term recovery going to do us? We need help now! We are hurting!”

The meeting had originally been planned as a workshop for the newly forming West Seneca Responds Team, a community flood recovery effort led by a Lutheran pastor and a Presbyterian layperson, both with disaster recovery experience. It gave way to flood survivors’ outpouring of grief at their loss and worry about how they would find the resources to clean up, repair and rebuild.

They were still getting over the shock of the January 11 disaster, which resulted from one of this winter’s deep freezes and subsequent thaws. Melt water had backed up behind a massive ice jam in Buffalo Creek and suddenly jumped the banks, inundating 70 single-family homes in West Seneca’s working class Lexington Green neighborhood.

Residents had to be evacuated by boat. Water filled many basements to the top, destroying furnaces, hot water heaters, freezers, washers and dryers, furniture and other belongings. Drywall got soaked and needs to be replaced. Thirteen homes remained uninhabitable.

“Our credit cards are maxed out just buying essentials,” flood survivors said. They felt stretched past their limit. They felt abandoned, disillusioned, hopeless. Moreover, they feared repeat flooding – a fear that was realized three days later despite the town’s monitoring and mitigation efforts.

It was a difficult meeting. Still, I am glad I was there. I was glad I could stand alongside the West Seneca Responds Team to listen to the flood survivors, empathize with them, and offer hope.

The Church World Service U.S. Emergency Response Program contributes to recovery by sharing its expertise with local long-term recovery groups. These groups reach out widely to survivors, including such vulnerable populations as children, the elderly, veterans and people already barely getting by financially.

They assess survivors’ needs, and then help them access public and private resources to meet their needs. They unlock recovery resources from within and beyond the local community. They raise funds and collect such in-kind donations as cleanup buckets and sheetrock, and organize and deploy volunteer teams to muck out and then repair and rebuild homes. And they see to survivors’ emotional and spiritual well being.

Doing the job right takes time. That’s often hard to accept, but it has to be said and bears repeating: Doing the job right takes time. For example, before volunteer work teams can be brought in, the local long-term recovery group must organize food and shelter for them – and must have a “map” of what each affected householder needs done.

At that tumultuous meeting, I tried to assure West Seneca’s flood survivors that although it feels hard to believe right now, they will recover. Their homes and lives might not be exactly as they were before the flooding, but they will reach a “new normal” in safe homes.

Joann Hale of Grand Island, N.Y., is a U.S. emergency response specialist for Church World Service.