Superstorm Sandy’s sustained emotional toll on survivors / NJ Spotlight News / November 1, 2022
BOBBY BRIER, MENTAL HEALTH WRITER
Winds and floods damage more than physical infrastructure, and it can take longer for residents to recover mental health
A decade after Superstorm Sandy damaged her home in Holgate, Elizabeth Burke Beaty still feels the emotional burden of the disaster.
It might have been the sharpest when Hurricane Ian brought flooding rains to New Jersey last month.
“My husband was at work and my son was at school and from the time that they left really early in the morning … we were separated,” Burke Beaty said. “And Ian came and the water was rising so quickly around our house that I started to feel for the first time PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) around water. It was rising so fast, I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
As the remnants of Hurricane Ian soaked the state in early October, some residents were reminded of Superstorm Sandy’s destruction as it made landfall in New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012. Ten years after Sandy killed 38 people statewide, caused $30 billion in economic losses and destroyed or damaged over 346,000 homes, people here still struggle with the mental health impacts.
“My biggest fear was that … somebody was not going to use their best judgment and try to drive my son home back on the bus over the (the Dorland J. Henderson Memorial Bridge),” Burke Beaty said, describing what she was thinking during Ian’s flooding. “I felt like we were sinking and I just had these absolutely catastrophic fears of the bus being washed away, and very irrational, where I had to stop and do a ton of mindful breathing and mindfulness.”
“I didn’t think it was going to be like that, but I hadn’t seen the water that high since Sandy,” she said.
Sandy’s cost — physical and mental
Ultimately, Superstorm Sandy was recorded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the fourth-costliest storm of the past 40 years, according to a new report released Oct. 28 from the New York University Center for Public Health Disaster Science that charted the recovery from the storm in the New York and New Jersey region.
“Right away, we saw a tremendous amount of mental health distress, not surprisingly, among people who were exposed to Hurricane Sandy,” said Dr. David Abramson, a clinical associate professor of public health at the NYU School of Global Public Health and the director for the NYU Center for Public Health Disaster Science.
Abramson was a principal investigator of the Sandy Child and Family Health study, which documented the well-being and recovery of New Jersey residents in the years after the storm, and a co-author of the report released Friday.
Abramson said one of the more striking findings initially had to do with kids’ mental health.
Kids who were living in houses that were moderately damaged had much worse mental health than kids who were living in homes that were extensively damaged or completely destroyed. This was a finding the investigators discovered about three years after Superstorm Sandy.
“And what we made of that is that those kids who were living in homes that were comprehensively destroyed (or) damaged were essentially going to be living in new homes because … either they moved or their houses were completely rebuilt. Whereas those who lived in houses that suffered moderate damage continued to see the aftereffects of the storm for a very long time,” Abramson said.
In the immediate aftermath, organizations throughout the state offered support to survivors. The Mental Health Association in New Jersey, a statewide nonprofit organization that provides advocacy, education, training and services to children and adults with mental health issues and substance-use disorders, had volunteers assisting survivors in shelters by providing emotional support. But they did not offer clinical counseling or therapy, according to Jaime Angelini, the statewide director of disaster services and special projects at the association.
“A lot of people after (a) disaster, they just want information, and that’s really difficult because there were so many unknowns at that time,” Angelini said. “People didn’t know if their homes were still standing (or) if things were OK. They were trying to connect with family. So for us just being there, and letting people talk and discuss their feelings and discuss their worries and to just validate was really important,” she said.
After the storm hit her community in 2012, Burke Beaty started the Sandy Support Group. The members met in a gutted space in Beach Haven that before the storm was a farmers market and deli.
“We had no heat. We had no running water. None of us had anything. We were still covered in sand and things were still down and the National Guard was still around, but we literally went into this empty space and just started meeting there,” Burke Beaty said. “A lot of us were living in friends’ basements … A lot of us were homeless. Basically, we were displaced.”
The group met at least once a week. It was the first time people who experienced storms like Sandy were able to get that kind of support, according to Burke Beaty. “That’s the funny thing about support groups. When it’s part of your lifestyle, like it is mine, it feels normal, but when you’ve never had that kind of support before, it’s life-changing. It really is,” she said.
Burke Beaty, who has been in recovery for 30 years from substance-use disorder and was trained as a crisis counselor, led support groups in the past and “was no stranger to supporting people around trauma.” The Sandy Support Group was well attended, Burke Beaty said, because people were traumatized and because she was a peer who was also affected by the storm and was not someone coming in from the outside.
As for her own family’s situation, they could only receive assistance from “immediate community members” because they did not qualify for any of the state programs. Her family lived in a mobile home across the street from the ocean, but they didn’t own the land. Because of their particular situation, they “fell through the cracks of everything.”
They were displaced from October 2012 until March 2013, when they moved into a rental home. The surrounding community provided furniture and helped pay their rent. “This whole community came and helped us move into this little house,” she said.
Today, Burke Beaty runs Sea Change RCO, a nonprofit recovery community organization that aims to end the stigma of substance-use disorder. Recovery community organizations are independent, nonprofit organizations led by local recovery allies, who may be people in long-term recovery, their families and friends or concerned citizens interested in providing support.
The services offered at Sea Change RCO are for people who are currently using drugs or in recovery, according to Burke Beaty. The organization supports both individuals and concerned family members and friends through private one-on-one meetings, support groups and physical activities.
“The New York and New Jersey areas most affected by Hurricane Sandy were remarkably resilient, likely due to their considerable resources, effective governments and strong critical infrastructure,” Abramson said. “We found that even a massive storm such as Sandy did not fundamentally disrupt the systems for more than a year.”
He added that just because there were minimal impacts at a system level does not mean there were minimal effects on a smaller scale. “The consequences of a storm such as Sandy can vary tremendously from house to house, resulting in uneven recovery,” he said.
But for Burke Beaty, she feels more connected to her community today than she did before Superstorm Sandy. It’s a connection she compared to her time spent living in Manhattan on and after Sept. 11, 2001.
“My husband and I talk about it all the time. Before Sandy, we weren’t connected to our community,” she said. “We kind of did our own thing and then it opened us up to this whole community and now … it feels more like maybe how it felt in the old days … before technology and stuff. We became so close to our neighbors and the same thing happened to me in Manhattan, except you felt bonded to the person you didn’t know (who) you were on the subway with.”