Mental, emotional health a concern during disaster recoveryHelp. Hope. Heal. Those three words were emblazoned across the T-shirts worn by citizen volunteers of the Wadena Ottertail Recovery Committee who were on hand Monday to meet with Carlton County officials about what they learned through the recovery process following the June 2010 tornados that devastated their communities.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Help. Hope. Heal. Those three words were emblazoned across the T-shirts worn by citizen volunteers of the Wadena Ottertail Recovery Committee who were on hand Monday to meet with Carlton County officials about what they learned through the recovery process following the June 2010 tornados that devastated their communities.
The Wadena Otter Tail Recovery Process has been widely cited as a model by the State of Minnesota's Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for their efforts, and they were eager to offer the benefit of their experience to Northland communities in the wake of the recent Northland Flash Flood.
David Evert, retired Wadena businessman and volunteer member of that area's recovery committee explained that community leaders pulled together a list of people who would potentially serve on that committee and then asked a couple of local pastors to take on the task of sorting through and inviting those people to participate. Out of that process came a committee of about 20-22 people, including a host of volunteers and three paid staff members – a volunteer coordinator, a case worker and a construction chief.
Evert said the communities of his area didn’t start talking about long-term recovery until around August, however – almost three months after the tornado hit the area.
“Getting started right now is important,” urged Evert. “The sooner you start, the better the recovery will happen."
He explained that long-term recovery is about doing all of the tasks that need to be done after the emergency response is finished.
"When the sandbags are gone and the water’s been pumped out of the basements, you have to rebuild people’s lives and neighbors have to help neighbors and communities have to help communities," Evert said. "That’s what long-term recovery is all about. Part of it is physical recovery, part of it is financial recovery and a great deal of it is emotional and mental recovery.”
Evert said the first big fund raising after the tornado happened spontaneously because people started calling to find out how they could help. A couple of the banks set up funds and publicized them. The next thing to happen was the Initiative Foundation publicized the Wadena-Ottertail disaster and invited the public to donate through Minnesota Give. Then they got into specific fund raising activities – one community did a pancake breakfast and raised $10,000, the community of Bluffton did an evening hamburger-hot dog feed and dance and raised something like $10,000 for their community as well.
"As much as possible you want to channel things through a general fund and trust the committee to determine how it gets spent," advised Evert, adding that when money gets donated and is tied to a very specific thing, it often becomes counter-productive to the process as a whole.
Wadena Ottertail Recovery Committee members universally agreed the most significant community need to be addressed six months into the recovery process was mental health.
"You'll find there’s a whole lot of people who have been injured and damaged by your disaster who don’t even know it yet," said Evert. "We all have this self-protection system by which we shut part of ourselves off. You will have people who have been impacted by this storm of yours who won’t be ready to open up and talk about it for a year or maybe two years. It takes a long time for some people."
Evert went on to stress that flood victims aren't the only ones dealing with the aftermath. He said many people throughout the community, whether they’re government employees, members of a church group or whatever, are spending inordinant amounts of time helping other people.
"Their self-protection device is to sort of shut down to protect themselves," he related. "But they’re going to get exhausted, and they’re going to have compassion fatigue. Part of the whole process of long-term recovery is to keep on looking at our neighbors and saying, ‘You need to take a break or you’re not going to be any good to anybody else if you collapse, so take the day off, go to the Twin Cities, go visit your daughter in Chicago for the weekend, or whatever you can find to do so you can recharge your batteries and reapply yourself.’”
Case worker Wendy Molstad compared the mental and emotional health issues following a disaster to post-traumatic shock syndrome.
“After six or seven months you begin thinking you should kind of starting coming out of it a little bit and wondering why you can’t get over it after half a year has passed," said Molstad.
Evert said the first spike in emotional and mental stress the county is likely to encounter is when all of the family flood victims start getting ready for the kids to go back to school and the clothes that they need and the schoolbags are no longer there. The next big community-wide spike is likely to come around Thanksgiving and/or Christmas.
"The holiday season is already a very emotional time, but this year there’s no decorations, there’s no tree, and there’s no money to buy gifts," he said. "In between all that, you’ll have all of the individual spikes – birthdays, wedding anniversaries – all the personal things.”
“Your life keeps going on. It doesn’t stop,” explained Molstad. “The people whose lives weren’t impacted by the disaster keep going and ask, ‘Are you still talking about this?’”
In fact, the gap between those who were affected by the flood and those who were not continues to widen over time. While many were empathetic at the time of the disaster, committee members said, eventually most succumb to the urge to turn their backs, go in the other direction and not keep looking behind them.
"That’s when the real hard work begins," said Evert, "because that’s about the time the people who at first found it difficult to accept help finally figure out they can’t do it on their own and have to ask for help. By then, however, they are often left to ask, ‘Where is everybody?’ It’s a highly complex challenge.”
Evert said there is a silver lining to the process of long-term recovery – a whole new set of people interacting with people who maybe never had anything to do with each other before.
"Before this storm, the word ‘community’ in Cloquet probably stopped at the city limits," he said. "Today, that word 'community' has a real gray line. Constructively, those boundaries erase. That’s part of the good that comes out of disaster because it brings people together.”
Today, two years after the disaster, the biggest challenge for the Wadena Ottertail Recovery Team is that they’re out of money, and though the focus on long-term recovery will be over in August, Evert said they aren’t going to allow the work of their committee to be over. He said their intention is to transition the committee from focusing on tornado recovery to focusing on community wellbeing and continue to do many of the same things. Once or twice a year they plan to collect a group of people to deal with helping fix some of the damaged houses, cut down trees or whatever still needs doing.
"We have all this incredible positive energy going," he said. "We’re not going to allow it to die.”
Some 99 percent of the Wadena Ottertail Recovery Committee is the same makeup as when they first started (two of the committee members have since moved outside the area). The Committee is comprised of five pastors, several individual citizens, representatives of county health from both Wadena and Ottertail counties, a representative of the Community Action Council, one from the school district and one from the city council.
The committee originally met weekly, and by the end of 18 months they moved to every two weeks, or more often if needed. Evert said they always meet at the same time and always have one-hour meetings, and the public is welcome to attend at any time. The group focused all of its attention, energy and long-term recovery money on unmet needs of individuals, including the uninsured and uninsurable. In all, they served 189 clients over two years and raised about $850,000, which they leveraged into $1.5 million worth of impact through in-kind services, donated materials, and that sort of thing.
Where they needed staff money, they secured it through Lutheran Disaster Response, foundations and local governments so all of the donated money could go toward disaster relief.
At the conclusion of Monday's visit, Dave Lee, Carlton County Health and Human Services director, said the most important message he gleaned from the experience of the people in Wadena and Ottertail counties following their tornado was for people to focus on outcomes and leave their individual agendas behind.
"It can't be just Cloquet or Barnum or Carlton County or St. Louis County," Lee said. "We all have to work as one for the maximum good."
Plans are already in the works to form a local disaster recovery committee to address the needs of the collective communities as the area moves into the future.
Evert said this is the first time the Wadena Ottertail group has reached out to another area suffering the aftereffects of a natural disaster, but they plan to do all they can to help ease the way for others who are facing the overwhelming task of disaster recovery.
"We have to pay forward a lot because so many people came to help us," he said. "We could spend the rest of our lives giving it forward and we wouldn't get it all paid back."