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Anecdote: Atlantic Provinces

Treating the Hidden Wounds of a Springtime Disaster

by H. Sidney Alchorn and Helen Jane Blanchard

All disasters have a common link, whether they occur in a large urban centre, a moderately sized city or a small rural community. They affect people -- either through loss of life, property damage or mental anguish.

After floodwaters subside, or the winds diminish, the images of the disaster soon fade from the memory of the uninvolved bystander. Man and nature can pick up the pieces, restore and rebuild. The event may leave few lasting physical scars.

In contrast, the emotional anguish and trauma suffered by the victims of disaster may linger. If this trauma is not treated, or if the victims are denied the opportunity to vent their anguish in a healing manner, recovery may be long delayed. Indeed, the wounds may fester and worsen, leading to emotional and physical disturbances.

Such was the case in the aftermath of the flood that struck the village of Perth-Andover, New Brunswick, April 2, 1987. Residents of the small farming and lumbering community were devastated by the sudden destruction of their riverside, downtown core by a severe flood. Fortunately, the implementation of a community outreach program proved instrumental in healing the deep emotional wounds inflicted on the townspeople, and enabled many distraught victims to resume their normal lives.

The village lies on the banks of the Saint John River, 144 kilometres south of the Quebec border and 175 kilometres north of Fredericton, the provincial capital.

On the evening of Wednesday, April 1, 1987, the Saint John River at Perth-Andover was swiftly approaching the 1976 flood level mark of 78 metres. An ice jam downstream caused water levels to rise more quickly than anticipated.

By 1 a.m. on April 2, the water had risen above the 1976 flood level, and the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization sent the community a warning to prepare for severe flooding. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the New Brunswick Highway Patrol began alerting individual households in low-lying areas.

By 5 a.m., the Saint John River began creeping across Perth-Andover's main street, and at 6 a.m., water covered the ground floor of the town hospital. A state of local emergency was declared at this time, and the mayor ordered the community power company to turn off all electricity to the village. Hospital patients and staff were evacuated to the nearest nursing home and threatened residents were urged to leave their homes as soon as possible.

Between 8 and 9 a.m., the entire downtown district was evacuated to local motels or homes of relatives or friends. By 9 a.m., the rail bridge spanning the river collapsed, and some unsuspecting residents awoke to find their first floor submerged under 2 metres of water. The pressure exerted by floating ice shifted several homes from their foundations.

At 11 a.m., April 2, the water levels peaked at 79.5 metres above sea level. Then the ice jam broke, and waters began to recede to below flood level.

Thanks to good emergency response on the part of emergency measures officials, no casualties resulted from the flood. Property damage was estimated at between $10 and $12 million.

Officials from the Fredericton headquarters of the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization arrived on the scene at 5 p.m., April 2. At that time of day, little more could be attempted than a visual inspection of the flood damage.

A public meeting was held the following day, April 3. All residents affected by the flood were briefed on the state of the disaster, but there was little information as yet on financial assistance. All officials could offer the victims was assurance that the government was on the scene, all evacuated homes and businesses were being secured by police, and buildings were being examined for structural and electrical safety.

It was at this meeting that emergency officials first noticed the obvious signs of stress. People wanted to know when it would be safe to return to their homes, what the government was going to do to help them, and what they could do to help clean up.

Financial assistance to start getting the community back onto a stable footing was not long in coming. The next day, April 4 immediate funds of $1 million were made available to meet fundamental needs, such as accommodation, clothing and food.

During the two weeks following the flood, the entire village began the job of cleaning up and recovering their assets and property.

Another public meeting was held on April 14 to explain the Disaster Financial Assistance program. More than 500 Perth-Andover residents attended this meeting at which the Province of New Brunswick made a commitment of $11 million to assist in the recovery of homes and businesses.

This meeting was an emotional one. It was the first opportunity flood victims had to vent their anger and frustration at government officials. Some residents claimed the flood was aggravated by the Beechwood Dam (located downstream) operated by the New Brunswick Electric Power Commission, a provincial agency. Others claimed they had not been given sufficient advance warning by officials of various orders of government.

On April 15, the Emergency Measures Organization opened a Disaster Assistance Office, where victims could register and apply for assistance. This office provided financial assistance, housing, legal and health advice, and counselling.

When the first few people came in, they were so distraught they couldn't fill out the forms. Upon observing this, emergency measures officials began making enquiries about the emotional state of all those who had suffered loss.

Many expressed feelings of anxiety, confusion and insecurity. Social workers from the Department of Health and Community Services began monitoring other public meeting areas for signs of extreme emotional behaviour.

Staff soon realized the serious extent of the problem. Perth-Andover had previously been visited by a psychologist and a mental health nurse, who already shared a normal case-load of 125 to 150 patients. New referrals had to wait up to six months for an appointment. Thus, the additional responsibility of 200 flood victims fell on the shoulders of four overworked social workers. The majority of the victims were senior citizens and only one social worker was designated to work with seniors.

In a letter addressing this concern, a member of the clergy wrote: "The remuneration that may be received to rebuild, refurbish, restore and renovate homes and businesses will be a welcome relief, but the greater portion of the damage cannot be priced. The damage to spiritual, emotional, and psychological well-being of these people has been devastating."

A local doctor assessed the emotional state of the flood victims this way: "There is a great deal of emotional strife and stress exhibited by the victims of the flood.... I am concerned these people need a great deal of professional support in order to re-adjust to life as it was prior to this terrible disaster."

But the citizens of Perth-Andover didn't wait for government to take care of them. Just two weeks after the second public meeting, they began forming their own committees to address their needs.

One committee, known as the Flood Victims Assistance Committee, was founded by the town's clergy. It was this lobby group's persistence that brought about the Community Outreach Services Program, set up on May 28 by the provincial Department of Health and Community Services.

One social worker and a psychiatric nurse were hired to administer exclusively to the needs of flood victims, five days a week. In addition, a help line was set up in the office, with community volunteers staffing the telephones. Ray Lafond, a social worker with Health and Welfare Canada, who had set up a similar program for tornado victims in Barrie, Ontario, spent two days briefing the nurse and social worker on how to set up the office and run the program.

Once the Community Outreach Program was approved and funded by the government, it had to be promoted. The Flood Victim's Assistance Committee became the primary promotion vehicle, serving as a source of referrals, obtaining volunteers to staff telephones at the Outreach Office, looking after media promotion, and providing liaison with the Flood Victims Association. All agreed that this program would not have been possible without the Committee's assistance.

The Community Outreach Program's first objective was to provide a supportive and preventive approach to the emotional turmoil victims were experiencing after the disaster. This was done by encouraging them to talk about their experiences and their losses, and in doing so, promoted normal healthy grieving and venting of feelings.

There was also a need to educate the public on the appropriateness of grief reactions to disaster-related losses to prepare people for possible difficulties that might be encountered in the months following the disaster. General information on post-disaster stress symptoms and behaviour was provided during numerous public-speaking engagements.

The two social workers were assigned to meet directly with the flood victims. The approach felt to be most acceptable was an informal home visit, encouraging as many family members as possible to be present. Families were prompted to retell their flood experiences, share their thoughts and feelings, relate their losses, and talk about the effect the disaster had on their lives. Essentially, the social workers tried to be sensitive listeners.

All the victims were anxious to talk about the flood to a willing listener. They needed to feel safe and supported as they expressed their feelings of anger, helplessness, sadness, fear and uncertainty about the future. This uncertainty was emphasized in their concerns about home and land values, future flooding, home repairs and financial loss.

Many felt that since no lives were lost, they were not entitled to grieve for lost material possessions, so they suppressed their feelings. They needed to be assured that grieving for disaster-related losses was a normal response, and one that all victims would experience in their own way and in their own time.

Family members were supported as they reached out to one another. Some shed tears and expressed their feelings for the first time since the flood. Individuals were encouraged to communicate openly with spouses and children, and to support one another.

During the first two months of the recovery phase, flood victims tearfully related their remorse and mourned their personal losses, with particular emphasis on homes, photographs, and family heirlooms... all those things that money cannot replace. They directed anger and blame toward New Brunswick Power and the dams, as many believed the flood had been caused by the dams and could have been prevented.

Victims reported sleep disturbances in the form of insomnia or terrifying nightmares in which they were plagued with repeated disturbing dreams:

  • raging water and ice invading their homes as they slept;
  • seeing homes and possessions floating down the river;
  • seeing themselves or family members or pets fighting for their lives as the flood-waters overpower them.

A number of people experienced appetite variations with subsequent weight loss or gain. Family members identified changes in each other's behaviour, such as increased irritability, decreased communication, withdrawal, an increase in family disagreements, sibling rivalry or acting out of character.

Many were frustrated and angered by the delays in receiving assistance money as financial demands mounted. They were anxious to rebuild their homes and lives, and these concerns led to a sense of not being in control of their destiny.

Some victims felt frustrated and angry about the lack of empathy displayed by other community members. This lack of empathy was evident in the criticism and resentment expressed by neighbours over the new purchases and construction. Others expressed discontent, disappointment and disillusionment about their settlements. The stress and strain of negotiations with government officials or overseeing construction left individuals physically tired.

Approximately six months after the flood, those who were able to repair their homes or secure a new one were feeling better, both physically and emotionally, despite uncertainty about the future. For those unable to get themselves settled, especially as the cooler weather set in, anger, frustration and disappointment in the system prevailed.

The Perth-Andover Community Outreach Program was successful in meeting the emotional needs of the victims, and healing resulted over time.

Experts recommend a minimum of four visits after a disaster. The first visit should be made as soon as possible after the event, and the second in September, when parents or children will probably experience separation anxieties because of school. The third visit should coincide with Christmas, as memories of past Christmases will surface and remind people of their loss. The fourth visit should occur on the anniversary of the disaster, as experience has shown that victims will often relive memories of a disaster at that time.

It is also recommended that stress-relief programs remain in place for as long as 18 months after a disaster.

Post-disaster stress-relief programs are imperative to recovery in any disaster, regardless of scale. Even little things like losing a favourite photo or family heirloom can cause the victim a great deal of stress.

All losses, large or small, will take their toll and cause much anxiety. There's a definite need for community outreach programs and it is the moral responsibility of governments to provide them. But because of the unique demands community outreach places on caregivers, such programs must begin with proper training and education of volunteers and special health care workers before disaster strikes.

Mr. Alchorn was Manager, Disaster Financial Assistance Office, New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization, and Ms. Blanchard is a Community Nurse, New Brunswick Health and Community Services.

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