By DIANE PHILLIPS
On August 23, 1992, family members were stationed on an island just off Bimini when Hurricane Andrew slammed The Bahamas with ferocious winds that topped 200 miles an hour. The winds howled louder and louder, building up such power they forced a shuttered window to implode. Furniture flew through the open hole, first a single dresser drawer, then another, then the entire bureau and then the cat. Barometric pressure dropped so low that in a nearby cottage a young girl’s heart simply stopped beating and she literally died for a moment. Thankfully, she was revived.
That weather event took place 27 years and 14 days ago and to this day, when a glass breaks, the strong woman who once endured the demanding life on a small island shakes uncontrollably. The sound of breaking glass triggers all too vivid memories of the hours of darkness, fear and terror, the pummelling of a storm, the toll it took.
If that single day’s trauma still haunts someone who lived through it nearly three decades ago, imagine what the emotional impact of surviving Dorian will do to the people of the second and third largest cities/settlements in The Bahamas. Using the second and third largest cities comparison, if it were in the United States, it would be the equivalent of more than 10 million people in living Los Angeles and Chicago. On a scale relative to the size of the whole country, approximately one in every five people in The Bahamas has been exposed to the horrific events of Dorian.
According to Katherine Ford, Ph.D., a Washington, DC-area based clinical psychologist who has spent years as a trauma specialist, it is unlikely that anyone can escape an emotional impact and for those who are most deeply affected, the reaction is likely to be exacerbated if not dealt with as urgently and immediately as possible.
“Life by itself is trauma,” said Dr. Ford. “An event like Hurricane Dorian takes away a sense of safety and grounding, part of our basic survival instincts. It also robs you of the resources that have helped hold you together internally – family, home – other resources and sets you up for future activation because anything that feels similar to this trauma – it could be something as simple as a drop of water coming from a spigot – can activate a re-enactment. It triggers the megdalia, that part of our brain that looks for danger.”
The reaction, she says, can be summed up in the simple statement: The world is no longer the way it was.
“In the case of the people in Grand Bahama and Abaco, especially, the ground has been moved from under them, literally,” she said.
Powerful storms are unlike other threats. There is no social contest, Dr. Ford explains, none to blame. “You my experience anger, and ask, ‘Why me? Why did have to happen to me?’ But there is no one to fight.”
You can’t punch a storm or bang your fist on a table to vent anger. Feelings of inadequacy and marginalization can turn inward. Following Hurricane Katrina that battered the Gulf Coast and wiped out portions of New Orleans, the medical community saw a surge in alcoholism, depression, sadness, even a sharp increase in suicidal thoughts.
The body can also react with a desire to flee – wanting to run, but where can you run to in the midst or immediate aftermath of a storm – or it can freeze, temporarily paralyzed until the cause of the trauma passes.
If you can’t fight, and you can’t flee, and the goal is to survive, you freeze. And that often leads to further depression after the storm. “It takes away your ability to think cogently for a while.”
According to noted author, clinical psychiatrist and internationally respected Bahamian Dr. David Allen, Dorian is unique in that in one way or another it affected nearly everyone in The Bahamas.
“Our family and friends in Abaco and Grand Bahama have suffered far more than we could ever imagine. If we let ourselves feel the depth and pathos of this experience, we can be overwhelmed and emotionally paralyzed. The fact is what happened in Abaco and Grand Bahama, has also happened to us. We are one country,” Dr. Allen reminds us.
He notes that the immediate reaction to trauma is shock, similar to what Dr. Ford called the freezing or paralysis stage.
Both agree it’s at this stage where help is most urgently needed to avoid post-traumatic stress disorder. And Dr. Allen describes the manifestations
a. Arousal symptoms such as flashbacks, insomnia, agitation, impatience, irritability, frustration, increased sensitivity, paranoid ideation and hyper vigilance.
b. Withdrawal symptoms from family, children and friends, excess use of alcohol and drugs, and the inability to return to previous function such as work, responsibilities, etc.
c. Physical symptoms such as headache, stomach ache, fatigue and lower immune response
d. Societal symptoms such as increased accidents, increased domestic violence, increased community conflict
So while everyone is doing all they can to get food, clothing, shelter and construction materials to rebuild Abaco and Grand Bahama, will someone remember to send counsellors, shrinks and comforting hugs? Every single victim of Dorian needs emotional support.
My dear friend, Joseph Darville, understood that. After Hurricane Joaquin, he went to his native Long Island and though the home where he grew up was totally destroyed, he found a cot to sleep on and every day went about the business of encouraging victims, letting them pour their hearts out, hearing their fear, helping them reorganize.
But most of all, he hugged them and gave them hope.
HOORAY FOR ALIV
All Aliv had to do to boost business during the days that Hurricane Dorian dominated the news was share video of customers of the other telecom provider trying to reach each other. “We are sorry. All circuits are busy now. Try your call later.” Clink. Or the words that appeared on the screen, Not registered on network, even though you are calling home where you have called maybe 1,000 times before.
Or the frustrated customers of that other network screaming down the smartphone that if they could ever get service their first call was to the little start-up that proved it could perform and now threatens to slay the one-time giant of the local market.