Wilmington faces emotional, mental toll from Florence

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Mental health experts working throughout region after the storm

Many watched horrified as pictures and videos of Hurricane Florence’s wrath trickled out of Southeastern North Carolina. Chadwick Roberts saw the destruction happen in real time, from inside his doomed home.

With rains and wind lashing the house as tornado warnings blew up his phone one night, Roberts got out of bed to walk to the bathroom. At that moment, a tree cut diagonally through his one-story, 85-year-old home.

“It was a few feet from my head,” Roberts said. “I guess I’ll just have to deal with those emotions, whatever they are.”

He experienced the next minutes through tunnel vision, scrambling to get his two dogs into his partner’s Jeep. The smell of gas from a broken line filled the air.

He drove to the home of an evacuated neighbor but was unable to get in. Another friend was able to guide him over the phone through the maze of blocked streets to a safe house in Forest Hills. Once inside, Roberts broke down.

“I just bought my house three and a half years ago,” he said. “I really didn’t know that I was putting myself in that much danger. My house was like a pincushion.”

Roberts is one of thousands in the region now faced with figuring out post-storm recovery — physical and emotional — with no clear road map. Homes have been flooded and crushed, possessions and roads washed away, a few lives lost and many more changed.

Richard Ogle is senior associate provost for Academic Affairs at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where Roberts is an assistant professor. Ogle, who is also a clinical psychologist specializing in trauma, said a key to recovery is asking for help now, and not waiting for problems to multiply.

“We are profoundly resilient as human beings, and so the vast majority of folks will recover naturally,” Ogle said. “When people are dealing with stressors like this, it’s actually not the stressor that’s the worst part. It’s avoiding getting back to the normal day to day. It’s avoiding it out of fear, it’s avoiding it out of embarrassment.”

Mental health toll

Buildings weren’t the only things scarred by the storm — since the Tuesday before Florence hit, phones have not stopped ringing at Trillium Health Services, which connects people in the region to mental health care.

“We do have the capacity for a surge in calls … In fact we have had to do that during this disaster,” said Cindy Ehlers, Trillium’s vice president of clinical operations. “We dealt with many people who were extremely anxious during the storm who were not known to us.”

Since the storm struck, Trillium has been trying to connect with 6,000 regular clients in 10 counties of Southeastern North Carolina, folks who get services for mental health issues, disabilities and addiction. A full week after the storm struck, Trillium had been unable to connect with about 40 percent of those clients because of widespread evacuations and interruptions in phone and internet service.

On top of that, 24 of Trillium’s group homes had to be evacuated for the storm. In the coming days, the company will dispatch 75 employees throughout the region to help connect people with care.

“We’re going to try to help the community understand the effects of storms on people’s mental health, and what the symptoms are that people might experience after a disaster like this,” she said. “Lots of people have behavioral health concerns when they’re surviving a natural disaster, or they’re the first responders.”

Support at school

On the way back into Wilmington, Tanya Jordan saw a child’s playset on the side of the road. Lying amid fallen limbs and leaves, the playset had been blown to bits by Florence’s gusts.

Jordan, New Hanover County Schools’ supervisor of School Counseling and Social Work, wondered what effect seeing that shattered playset would have on a child, whose world is usually smaller and less complicated than an adult’s.

“It may not seem like a big deal to us, but it’s a big deal to them,” she said.

Jordan said many school counselors and psychologists struggled after the storm to return to the region. When everyone is back, she plans to meet with all of them to discuss post-storm support for students.

Children of all ages can exhibit a range of symptoms after living through a disaster, whether they stayed or evacuated. Kids may be more withdrawn or clingy, have unusual eating habits or problems with bladder control.

“I would say the most important thing is to try to be attentive to their children,” Jordan said. “They may be exhibiting some of those symptoms of the trauma that they’ve experienced, because it is a trauma.”

Jordan advised parents to contact school staff if they feel their child needs support, especially if problems continue long-term. She also recommends limiting kids’ exposure to the constant stream of images and updates from the storm.

“It can also can be re-traumatizing to children because over and over and over again, they’re seeing reports of death, of tragedies happening,” she said.

At UNCW, Ogle said campus leaders are working on a plan to support students emotionally and academically as they return to campus.

Ogle said faculty will work with administrators to give students more flexibility to get course work done this semester, and could make special accommodations for students who struggle to return to campus. Freshmen students are already connected to advisers, who will check in on them regularly as campus reopens.

As always, he said, the university offers many forms of support, from the counseling center to psychologists to social workers. He encouraged everyone on campus to not hesitate if they think they need help.

“Realize that having a stress reaction and struggling a little bit is completely normal for things like this,” Ogle said.

Reporter Cammie Bellamy can be reached at 910-343-2339 or Cammie.Bellamy@StarNewsOnline.com.