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Finding Strength After the Storm – Israeli Clinical Psychologist Discusses Aiding Evacuees In Fort Meyers In Wake of Hurricane Ian
– By Dr. Sharon Slater
On our first day in Florida, we visited a shelter for people who had lost their houses due to the hurricane. Most of them were elderly, but there were also some young families and a handful of people of different ages. Some of them had actually been at home when the hurricane struck and had survived the total destruction of their house collapsing around them, leaving them with deep mental scars.
The people staffing the shelter instructed me to first attend to Sam*, a man in his 60s. I approached him and initiated a conversation. The tragic irony of Sam’s story caused him to need my help and intervention. Sam now actually has a roof over his head, where he didn’t before as he had been homeless before the hurricane. Currently, living under the roof of the shelter made him feel disoriented. He felt so out of his element that instead of sleeping on the cot provided by the shelter, he slept on the floor, as he was used to that prior to the hurricane. Sam told me that this was his way of feeling “at home”.
Using different techniques, I tried to make him regain a sense of control over his situation. I pointed out that despite his difficulties, he must have a particular resilience that most people don’t have in dealing with the upheaval and feeling of rootlessness because he has lived in so many different places. He concurred. “That makes me feel so good, you’re right, I do,” he told me. Sometimes, all that people need is to recognize the own inner forces that they have within them. With a renewed sense of strength, Sam thanked me for coming to help.
After speaking with Sam, one of the people I came across was Jessica*, a young girl in her senior year of high school who was there with her four cats in two large cages. I initially engaged with her by talking about the cats and asking her questions about them until she took them out of the cage and we petted them together.
Jessica recounted how she and her family had been rescued from one of the islands off the coast which were completely submerged but during the evacuation, her father had moved up to the second floor with a rifle, refusing to leave and insisting that his family be evacuated without him. She had been terrified to leave her father but Jessica, her brother, and her mother had come to the shelter together with their cats.
At the shelter, Jessica and her brother had decided that since they were the youngest people by far, they were going to do shopping runs for the elderly. They collected money from people and went out to buy anything that was needed. I was pleasantly shocked. I told her how strong she was and helped her focus on the significance of her actions. Jessica’s ability to find an occupation that involves helping people around her during a period when so many others feel upended is a testament to her resilience. The rest of our conversation was really positive and we both came out of it with renewed strength. When I left I turned to look at Jessica and her demeanor had changed, she was really upbeat and positive and playing with her cats who were no longer just in cages.
Overall, I see our work here, to be much like the work I did in Surfside, in Moldova with Ukrainian refugees, and in Texas after Hurricane Harvey, helping people cope with loss. The debilitating aspect of loss and facing this type of tragedy is a sense of loneliness and a sense of helplessness. Jessica showed that she already had moved beyond hopelessness, in that she was being proactive towards helping others, she needed help alleviating her senses of loneliness, especially after her father stayed at their home. Sam, on the other hand, has been dealing with loneliness for so long, he didn’t quite know how to deal with kindness and being with other people at the shelter. Now that his situation had changed, and he has a roof over his head, he needed to come to terms with his new situation and recognize that he too was neither hopeless nor alone.
Working together with the staff in the shelter was really remarkable. I cannot say enough about the work that they are doing to help these people, and I am proud that I too am here and a part of it.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the people involved
Dr. Sharon Slater is a clinical psychologist and a member of United Hatzalah’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit. She lives in Nof Ayalon, Israel with her family and is currently a member of the organization’s relief mission to Naples and Fort Myers, FL to provide emotional and psychological stabilization to people who have been affected by Hurricane Ian. Previously, Dr. Slater has been part of previous relief missions with the unit including following Hurricane Harvey, the Champlain Towers Collapse, and most recently to the Ukrainian border with Moldova to assist in the refugee crisis that occurred during the first few months of the war in Ukraine.