Lessons Learned? Surviving the Disaster’s Aftermath
Getting through Sept. 20, 2017, was the first step. Then, it was surviving the following months of recovery. Now that the island has passed Hurricane Maria’s one-year anniversary, and Puerto Ricans are getting on with their new normal, it is important to assess and respond to the mental and emotional scars left by the major storm and get on with the bumpy recovery process.
To that end, Foundation for Puerto Rico (FPR) invited experts on trauma to Puerto Rico, including, Charles Figley, director of the Traumatology Institute at Tulane University, who has focused his career as an academic researcher on trauma from catastrophic events, including civilian populations as well as military veterans. Also invited from Tulane University was Reggie Ferreira, director of the Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy.
During a media roundtable, Figley indicated he has studied about 35 traumatic events, including Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans in 2005, and explained that what people on the island are experiencing, at a general stage, is not post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but rather a general response to trauma. “We are not really talking about [PTSD]; we are talking about the natural response to trauma. You see, when most people are affected by trauma, they don’t develop PTSD. It’s a fairly small percentage, even for something as pervasive and destructive as you find here [after the hurricanes],” the professor said.
Nevertheless, Figley argued, it is important to treat the mental consequences left by a traumatic event, but the support infrastructure to address such emotional trauma is not completely analogous to the structure for handling long-term mental health diseases or conditions.
In the case of PTSD, or “the general response to trauma,” treatment is focused on getting the affected person over the event because handling trauma “is really memory management.”
“Whenever we are faced with a traumatic event, irrespective of what it is, whether it is a natural disaster or an auto accident, there are five questions we have to address to feel safe again: What happened?; Why did it happen?; Why did I act the way I did at the time?; Why have I acted the way I have since that time?; What if this happens again?” Figley explained.
The director of the Traumatology Institute argued that he has seen the same reaction and heard the same questions from various populations—“irrespective of culture and irrespective of religiosity.” Interestingly, Figley added, for some people in New Orleans, the resolution of the traumatic event came with Hurricane Gustav, three years after Hurricane Katrina, because it was an event of the same nature as the previous major storm but produced a different result. Therefore, the survivors of the 2005 devastation were able to see that a hurricane does not necessarily yield the same level of devastation.
Both the professors and Annie Mayol, president of the FPR, agreed it is important to pay attention to victims and the people aiding in the recovery effort, who may become emotionally drained from helping people through their difficult time.
Mayol explained that the first part of this initiative is a fact-finding mission, so the professors are able to assess the current state of the people and the mental health infrastructure to then help provide tools to handle recovery from emotional trauma.
“Foundation for Puerto Rico recognized that the people who work here, at this not-for-profit, and the people who work with many other organizations are always focused on helping others, but it is very important that we recognize this is a marathon, that it is going to be a long process. So, we also have to consider self-care and how we can ensure our team of workers that it is so important to maintain resilience, a personal resiliency, in this process and that we support them,” the foundation president said.