Joaquim Jitters Trigger Hurricane Sandy Flashbacks

Long Beach, NY: It was the robocall that got me.

Thursday, October 1st. 3:30 pm: Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano was saying that Hurricane Joaquin could reach Long Island around Tuesday morning., October 6th. We should get our emergency "Friends and Family" plans in place. And prep those go-kits.

The sensory trigger--the sound of his voice--went off in my head like a bomb. I was standing, ankle-deep in cold rushing water as Hurricane Sandy broke through the back wall of my Long Beach home. Flash back #2: Squished in the cramped crawl space of my attic, watching the flood inching up each aluminum stair. Wondering...

"Change the channel, Laur," I told myself. "You don't have to watch it again." The weather reports were pointing to a non-event in hurricane terms. Joaquim would probably be heading out to sea by Monday. Still, there was no harm in being careful.

My go-kit was stationed in the front hall closet. That might seem like an odd statement because where would it go? But for a year and a half after Hurricane Sandy, I compulsively checked and rechecked that bag twice a week. No one had touched it. No one even knew where it was. I knew that I was acting out of hypervigilance which was more or less normal given the scale of destruction I had witnessed. Mangano's voice made me realize that I hadn't gone near that go-kit since last spring. So maybe it was time.

This may be too much information but the one item I had not prepared for ahead of Hurricane Sandy was an emergency toilet. I had 13 gallons of water, a year's supply of plumbers' candles and matches, about six flashlights with batteries, and two emergency radios with LED lights. One could even be operated by a solar panel and a hand-crank. There were blankets, pillows, and lots of towels. But when that call of nature came--and given the suggestive power of rushing water you can imagine that sooner or later it had to happen--I wished I had thought of buying a few RESTOP portable toilets which I had given my daughter as a going-away present when she was traveling in Thailand. "I've never been to Thailand," I told her. "But I'm thinking that the toilet facilities in the bush are probably not what you're used to." Who'd a thunk that mom should have kept one or two for herself?

I couldn't help from smiling as I opened the duffel bag and reacquainted myself with my go-kit's #1 and #2 RESTOPS as well as the rubber gloves, dust mask, dry cat food (for Bogart the cat in case you're wondering), wet wipes, water purifying tablets, mouthwash strips, first aid kits, and assorted emergency toiletries in a Red Cross bag. Not to mention 6 "Just in Case" Meals Ready to Eat (MRE's): chicken teriyaki with rice, beef stroganoff with noodles (contains wheat gluten, hydrolyzed corn gluten, sugar, and "Flavoring"; chili mac with beef (contains potassium chloride, maltodextrin, disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate); rice and chicken; pasta primavera (contains "natural flavor" and autolyzed yeast extract); sweet and sour pork (contains maltodextrin, hydrolyzed corn gluten, and "natural flavors"); scrambled eggs , ham, and pepper (contains "smoke flavor," xanthan gum, sodium phosphates, sodium erythorbate, and sodium nitrite); and scrambled eggs with bacon. Don't ask.

Hmm. No peanut M&M's? What was I thinking? Now that I'd read the ingredients, there was no way I would pop open one of those MRE bags. But if I swapped out the MRE's for a large box of peanut M&M's, I'd be the most popular girl in the shelter.

I wasn't the only one who was triggered back to the night of Hurricane Sandy by the county executive's robocall. One friend called in tears. "I'm in the supermarket. People are pulling everything off the shelves like it's the end of the world. And they're fighting on line at the gas station. I can't go through this again." It was Survivor meets Lord of the Flies.

Another friend, who never received funds to rebuild her house, texted, "Anyone who thinks Hurricane Sandy is over should be punched in the face." On the surface, that much anger might seem extreme but since anger comes from hurting and wanting, when you have lost everything and the institutions that were supposed to support you have not come through, it is hard not to feel angry.

But people hold it in. After all, they are continually told they should be over it. Hearing "haven't you moved on" tends to make you shut up. But when speaking to my colleagues in the disaster mental health field, I hear that it takes three to five years to process the full emotional impact of a catastrophic event. The cycle of people wanting to help out lasts about two months. But for a survivor of a natural disaster, assault, or an auto accident, a catastrophe is just the opening scene in a disaster movie that goes on for years...with no Tom Cruise action hero coming to the rescue. If nothing else, it catapults you into having to stand on your own two feet.

That is why I continue to run two support groups for people who are putting their lives together after Hurricane Sandy. Every time I suggest ending our monthly meetings, I get voted down. "This really helps us," I hear again and again. "I have no place else where I can talk about what's really going on." These responses corroborate what I learned from working with teenagers whose fathers were killed on the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center is that some people are in shock for the first few years. They only begin to open up around the third anniversary. But in this age of wanting quick fixes, those who struggle with deeper wounds due to trauma have become the forgotten. More than ever, they need a safe place to talk without being judged.

On Tuesday night, October 10, nearly 20 people poured into the undercroft of St. James of Jerusalem Episcopal Church in Long Beach, NY. Twice as many as our regular monthly meetings. Everyone reported that the threat of Hurricane Joaquim had triggered flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety. They expressed fear about having to go through another destructive storm again. Some of us cried. Others said they were grateful that they did not have to hide their true feelings. "I didn't expect to feel so anxious," said Sarah M., whose 96-year old beach cottage got flooded with five feet of water from Hurricane Sandy. "Joaquim brought it all back."

"In Kentucky, it would cost $27,000 to fix this little house," Sarah was told by the insurance adjuster who showed up soon after the flood. Maybe in Kentucky there are no building codes and you can get away with duct tape but in this part of the world $27,000 will get you a new heating system ($10,000), a new electrical system ($11,000) and some sheetrock. You won't be able to replace the bathroom, kitchen, or flooring. After months of attempting to negotiate, Sarah filed a lawsuit against the insurance company but it was dismissed because, as "60 Minutes" reported, her insurance company was among those indicted for filing false engineering reports.

Moving on, she filed an application with New York Rising, a state fund that was administering the funds allocated by Congress for Sandy relief. They "lost" her paperwork six times. After being told in spring of 2014 that she would finally be getting a check to help pay to raise her house, Sarah was waiting for the check when an engineer from New York Rising called to schedule an inspection of her new construction. "What new construction?" she asked. "My house has not been touched since Hurricane Sandy." She called New York Rising to find out what was going on but no one had any record of her having applied. She and her son went to the New York Rising office, only to be told that her application was not in the system. Frustrated (understandably), she raised her voice. That's when an armed security guard positioned himself in front of her, with his hand on his holster. "Mom, it's not worth getting shot over," said her son, pulling her away. When she told me, I couldn't help but wonder what kind of society we are becoming when a 50-something year old woman who lost her home to a natural catastrophe has to endure being threatened by a rent-a-cop carrying a gun. Seriously?

After three years of paying for an unlivable house--mortgage, taxes, insurance, and water/sewer fees-- plus their rental apartment, financial and emotional stress took its toll on her marriage. She and her husband separated after 25 years. Eventually, she could not afford to keep paying for both residences. "One day I got a letter from the mortgage company telling me that I had abandoned the property and it was going to auction," she said.

But Sarah sees the silver lining. "Sandy showed me what's important. In the case of my marriage, I saw that it takes two people to make it work. Either get on the ship with me or get in the lifeboat. You have to be a participant," she says. "Sandy cleaned out all the rap. She made me start over. When I'm feeling sorry for myself, my daughter will say, 'Mom, you're the strongest person I know. You amaze me every day. And I wouldn't have known that if it wasn't for Sandy.'"

"Nature understands no jesting. She is always true, always severe. She is always right, and the errors and faults are always those of man. The man incapable of appreciating her she despises, and only to the apt, the pure and the true does she resign herself and reveal her secrets," Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote back in the 19th century. Nearly 200 years later, this German philosopher's insight is even more poignant than when he penned this thought.

People ask me why I've stayed. It's the same question I ask my support groups. Our respective individual answers share a common theme: because we love the sea. Sometimes it's like being in a turbulent relationship with someone who has extreme mood swings. "I love the ocean and I respect her. She is a living being," says Sarah." "And I know that whatever they do to keep it away, there is nothing that is going to hold her back because she is a more powerful force than we are."

It is still hard for Sarah, as it is for most Hurricane Sandy survivors, to look at the brutality of the past three years and say, "Whatever happened, it was for the best." Sarah keeps telling herself, "God never closes a door without opening a window. But we have to look for it."