My name is Einat Kauffman and I am the Clinical Director of United Hatzalah’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit (PCRU). I am one of seven members of our current relief mission to Fort Myers and Naples in Florida providing emotional stabilization and psychological first aid to evacuees who lost everything due to Hurricane Ian.
The PCRU specializes in providing emotional stabilization and psychological first aid (PFA) after medical emergencies and large-scale disasters and I myself have a lot of experience in this field and have participated in numerous relief missions of this kind over the years. After disasters such as these, both those affected directly by the disaster, as well as first responders who arrive to help, are often in need of psychological first aid to help them cope with their experiences.
Here are a few stories of what I have seen in Fort Myers over the past few days.
Elliot* The Tall Man
Elliot is in his 70’s and is a former lawyer. He moved to Florida with his wife a few years ago in order to retire. They chose a picturesque spot on the beach that was quiet so that they could simply relax and enjoy life. When the storm hit, they tried to close off their windows and stay inside so that they could be safe. However, the water got in anyway and their house began to flood. As the water level rose, the couple quickly put their dog and cat inside suitcases and tied themselves to one another so that whatever happened to one of them, the other would be right next to them.
They got out of their trailer just before it exploded As the ocean waters continued to rise around them, they both thought that they would not make it. Elliot managed to grab hold of the one piece of the structure that was still standing. The water went up to his neck, and he is very tall. As he was telling me this, I imagined myself in his position and I thought to myself that I would have drowned for certain as he is far taller than I.
Elliot managed to keep both himself and his wife afloat until the water began to slowly recede. They spent the next two days tied to one another and holding onto this piece of metal that was still standing from their trailer and taking care of their dog and cat, as best they could.
The couple were finally rescued but had gone two days without food or water and were in bad shape. They were brought to the evacuee shelter at the high school in Fort Myers where many other evacuees who had suffered similar fates have gathered. On Tuesday I spoke with them about their difficult ordeal and helped them work through some of the shared trauma that they experienced. Ellio told me that they were going to be meeting his sister soon who had traveled from Chicago to pick them up and they will now be moving to Chicago.
Dave the builder
Dave works in construction. He lived in a private house in Cape Coral. As the waters began to rise he got out of his house and watched as the flood destroyed his home and everything in it. He is currently in the refugee shelter in Fort Myers, and he has nothing. He was very confused about what to do with himself now as he had nowhere to return to and suddenly found himself homeless. A man who has built many homes in his time now had none for himself. He asked if there was an organization that could help him finance a new home. We thought about a few options including having Dave join the cleanup teams here so that he could earn some money for himself to start rebuilding his life back up once again. He is very sad and is just about 60 years old. He has lived his entire life here in the area and simply does not know where to go from here.
The Family That Wouldn’t Leave
On Tuesday we drove around Fort Myers Beach and we were called over by a group of firefighters who were having difficulty with one particular family, who was the only family left inside a condo building that had been evacuated due to the storm. The family lived on the second floor of the building in an apartment. As the entire area had been evacuated due to the flood and the building was deemed unfit for human occupancy, firefighters and rescuers who had come to search for survivors, found the family inside their apartment, but they refused to leave. The family, a couple and three children told the firefighters that they hadn’t left their apartment in more than two years out of a fear of the Covid-19 pandemic and that they weren’t going to leave now.
I approached them and spoke to them. I alleviated their fears about the pandemic as best I could and explained to them that it was unsafe for them to stay in their home. They said that they understood but that they were unwilling to leave due to the possibility of contracting the virus. I helped them weigh the risks of each issue worst case scenario, contracting the disease in its current form, which for most is not lethal, or staying in an apartment in a building that has been declared unsafe and the possibility of collapse. I told them that members of our very own team had responded to the Surfside collapse and explained to them a bit about what happens when a building collapses. I spoke to the wife and mother and she understood me and I understood her, and I tried to allay her fears. She said she would discuss the issue with her husband and children and decide later. I moved on to go and help others as the family deliberated. A few hours later, the firefighters who were at the scene and who had requested our help sent me a photo of the family after they had exited the building and the firefighters were going to take them to one of the nearby shelters. I was proud that I was able to help this family make the right choice and I hope that they live a long and happy life together.
Hearing these experiences and helping people overcome the associated trauma with them, takes a toll on anyone. As part of the PCRU, we are trained to not only provide care for those who suffered traumatic experiences, but also for the caregivers, those who witness or accompany others who have suffered from trauma, and the first responders who show up to deal with the aftermath. That includes firefighters, police officers, and of course, EMS workers. In this case, it also includes rescue and relief workers, and even each other here in the PCRU. At the end of every night, we have a group debrief where we check in with one another and help each other process the traumas that we have shared. Each time we help someone, we take a little piece of the trauma they shared with us. We must maintain our own mental health in order to be successful at what we do and in order to be ready for the next day, where we will go out and help others and hear more traumatic stories of survival. The important part to remember is that in the case of the evacuees, these are all stories of survival.
Dr. Einat Kaufman is one of the directors of United Hatzalah’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit. She has a Ph.D. in psychology and works as a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of acute emotional stress and stabilization in emergencies and disaster zones.
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