Hurricane Harvey survivors feel grief, distress months later

|     Jamie Stengle     |


DALLAS (AP) — Deb Eberhart couldn’t sleep and was easily moved to tears as she worked to coordinate repairs to her Houston home in the months after flooding from Hurricane Harvey besieged it with 0.91 metres of water.

She clenched her jaw so hard that it hurt. She couldn’t eat.

“I thought: ‘Well, I’m not handling things as well as I should be,’” the 69-year-old retired teacher said. Eberhart realised she needed help that had nothing to do with construction crews and insurance adjustors. So she joined storm survivors seeking help from therapists in the wake of the destructive winds and heavy rains in August that caused more than 80 deaths and an estimated $150 billion in damage in Texas.

Experts say the emotional distress caused by such an event can take many forms — grief, anxiety, depression, even fear of storms — and progress through several stages over a year or longer. Even months after the storm hit, new patients have been coming to free counselling being offered by private and government-funded programmes. In the small coastal town of Port Aransas, which experienced major destruction after Harvey made landfall nearby, psychologist Andrew Reichert said he began noticing a shift about a month ago in what was bringing people in.

“It’s gone from kind of the immediate stress and shock to more just kind of a chronic stress and long-haul type of thing,” Reichert said. “A lot of my work is helping people prioritise and focus on what they can control versus what they can’t.”

Deb Eberhart stands in her living room full of boxes, December 15, 2017, in Houston. Eberhart, who recently returned to her remodelled home, had to evacuate during Hurricane Harvey as floodwaters filled her neighbourhood. – AP

Eberhart headed to Austin before the storm hit, even though she thought her Houston home would be fine.

She later received photos of the flooding at her house from a neighbour who used a boat. When she returned home, she was heartbroken by what she found: “Mud and slush, and everything just gone.”

She lived with her son and his roommates in Houston for about three weeks, then she moved into a starkly furnished apartment near her home. The stress increased amid the frustrations of being displaced, remodelling work and the grief from losing irreplaceable items such as furniture that belonged to her mother and childhood photographs.

“I think after a while you just have to accept the fact that maybe you’re just stuck in a place, and somebody can just get you over the hump and it would be a therapist,” Eberhart said.

She had her first counselling session in November with Judith Andrews, a psychologist who co-chairs the Texas Psychological Association’s disaster resource network. Eberhart, who was able to return to her house in December, said talking to Andrews helped her realise she should not be mad at herself for still being upset and that she needed to take steps to deal with the stress, such as starting to exercise again.

Andrews, whose organisation is offering free counselling sessions, said survivors feel grief over the loss of both property and stability. “They’re grieving about the loss of what was,” she said.

They usually first experience the survival-focussed “heroic phase,” when people are responding with high intensity, helping others to survive or being rescued, Andrews said. A few weeks later comes the “honeymoon” phase, which can last up to six months as people are buoyed by feelings of solidarity and bonding from their shared experience.

But anger, resentment and feelings of isolation and abandonment can creep in during the “disillusionment” phase, when survivors struggle to rebuild. The “reconstruction” phase follows — and can last for years — as victims learn to accept that everything won’t be the same.