‘There’s nothing left’: Hurricane Ian leaves emotional scars

FORT MYERS, Fla. — With her home gone and all her possessions ransacked by Hurricane Ian, Alice Pujols cried as she rummaged through soggy clothes, toys and overturned furniture piled high outside a stranger’s house, looking to salvage something – n anything – for her four children and herself.

“I try to make it to tomorrow,” she said. “That’s all I can do. It’s really depressing. It really is.”

For those who have lost everything in a natural disaster and even those who have been spared, the anguish can be overwhelming to return home to find so many missing things. Grief can range from frequent tears to complete despair. Two men in their 60s even took their own lives after seeing their losses, the medical examiner for Lee County, where Ian first made landfall in southwest Florida, said.

The emotional toll of the days, weeks and months after a hurricane, flood or wildfire can be crippling. The most urgent needs for food, shelter and clothing often take priority over seeking advice, which is rare even in times of prosperity.

“When someone is in a state of trauma that so many people are in, they don’t know where to start,” said Beth Hatch, CEO of Collier County, Fla., branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. . “They need support and they need to know that there are so many people here to help them.”

Hurricane Ian hit Florida with such ferocity that it wiped out entire neighborhoods, tossed boats down highways, swept away beaches and submerged homes in deep water.

With sustained winds of 150 mph (240 km/h), it was one of the strongest hurricanes to ever hit southwest Florida. It then cut a watery, windswept swath across the Florida peninsula before heading out to sea to regain strength and strike South Carolina.

It killed more than 100 people, the majority of victims in Florida, making it the third deadliest storm to hit the continental United States this century. Even a week after it passed, officials warned that more victims could still be found as they continued to inspect the damage. The storm knocked out power to 2.6 million people and caused billions of dollars in damage.

Research has shown that between a third and half of those who survive a disaster develop some type of mental distress, said Jennifer Horney, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Delaware who studies the impacts of natural disasters on public health.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety increase with substance abuse. People with existing mental disorders are at greater risk of having these conditions exacerbated by trauma.

Various aids are available as additional resources are sent to the region.

The state of Florida has set up support centers and the federal government has a 24-hour disaster hotline to provide advice and support in the event of a crisis. Hatch’s organization was visiting select homes in hard-hit areas to check on clients with mental illness.

The vast majority of people, however, were still assessing the damage, trying to salvage and dry out possessions worth keeping, and dragging what could not be salvaged to growing piles of rubbish at the edge of the river. road.

On Pine Island, just off mainland Florida where Ian first struck, an emotional Alan Bickford said he was trying to see ahead because what lay ahead was dark: the floors in his house were covered in stinky mud and his yard was littered with framed pictures, furniture and other items he had brought outside.

“It’s like the death of a loved one. The pain comes and goes,” he said. “There are times when there are these little glimmers or glimmers of hope. And then everything falls apart.”

Riding through a deadly storm amid howling winds, crashing waves and rising waters, or escaping as danger draws near is terrifying and traumatic. Living in a gym bag or suitcase in an evacuation center is confusing, stressful and depressing. To return to a flood-ravaged home that needs to be gutted to prevent mold from setting in or, worse, shattered and scrapped and scattered like confetti is heartbreaking.

Mao Lin walked for an hour on Thursday to reach the land where she had lived on Fort Myers Beach, which looked like a blast zone. She was distressed to find him gone.

“The whole street – there’s nothing left,” she said. “We don’t have a house. We don’t have a car. We don’t have anything. We don’t have anything anymore.”

In recent days, the number of calls has doubled across Hatch’s organization as people recognize they cannot rebuild their lives – and overcome trauma – alone.

“Needs will change over time,” Hatch said. “Some people have lost everything, maybe the walls of their house are still standing, but they are uninhabitable.”

Cleaning up the mess of a damaged home or finding a new one following a disaster gives way to the longer-term challenges of navigating the maze of bureaucracy to secure financial assistance, obtain rebuilding permits or fight the insurance companies for reimbursements.

Horney studied suicide rates in counties that experienced a disaster between 2003 and 2015. She and her colleagues found that suicides increased by 23% when comparing the three years before a disaster to the three years after an event. , according to the study published in The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention.

She said the September 30 and October 1 suicides of men in their 60s were not typical so soon after a catastrophic event.

“It’s usually not an immediate, post-disaster thing,” Horney said. “It’s really those longer-term mental health issues that were exacerbated or caused by the disaster that, over time, tend to lead to more serious outcomes like suicide.”

In the aftermath of a disaster, communities come together to recover and rebuild. Rescuers, aid workers and non-profit organizations provide food, funds and other forms of assistance, including advice. But the attention eventually fades and the money dries up. Mental health emergency funds sometimes expire after two months and last no more than a year.

With disasters becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change, there could be a cumulative effect on mental health, Horney said. She said her study called for more funding to repair the damage felt but unseen.

Most of the emotional impacts of a disaster are short-lived, but they could be made worse if followed by another cataclysmic event.

“If it was usual for symptoms to go away in six months to a year, but there’s another hurricane or another wildfire, then you’re in this cycle of intensifying mental health impacts,” Horney said. “The research is definitely clear that the more disasters you are exposed to, the stronger the mental health impacts.”

Joe Kuczko hunkered down with his parents as their Pine Island mobile home was battered by the storm. Kuczko suffered a gash on his foot which he stitched up after a piece of the roof blew off.

Pieces of mangled metal lay on the ground Thursday with containers full of belongings and clothes hung to dry as Kuczko, shirtless and with a sunburn on his back, hung up a tarp to keep rain out. what was left of the house.

“I lost the first 30 years of my life,” he said. “Every time I hear the wind blowing and a piece of aluminum moving, it’s like PTSD.”


Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press reporter Robert Bumsted contributed to this story from Pine Island, Florida.


The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available for those in distress by dialing 988 or 1-800-273-8255.

ABC News

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