Counselors help displaced residents cope with loss
June 29, 2007
Images of South Lake Tahoe residents rummaging through the ashes that used to be their homes, personal belongings and keepsakes, have now become part of the community lexicon.
Though an outpouring of goodwill and support from coast to coast has flooded into the basin this week, health-care and financial-service professionals warn that for some, the tragedy may be just beginning.
Red Cross officials opened a shelter that specializes in helping displaced individuals and families obtain counseling for both finance and mental health.
The shelter opened Friday at 10 a.m. in the cafeteria of Lake Tahoe Community College. The summer sun shone through the large plate glass windows revealing a woodsy backdrop many would more readily associate with a convivial retreat atmosphere than a cot-and-refugee-filled triage center synonymous with large-scale disasters.
In the wake of disaster, issues of financial and mental health are intrinsically tied, one Red Cross spokeswoman said. The shelter, which is open during daytime business hours (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) is set up to “transition victims back to their lives.”
“We’re assessing things on a case-by-case basis,” said Red Cross spokeswoman Amber Beck. “We’re meeting one-on-one with each family or individual.”
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Not only were Red Cross and El Dorado County staff at the shelter, but they were also dispatched to some of the sites opened Friday afternoon for victims to peruse the ash and soot where their homes once stood.
Wes Lamb, a clinical psychologist who joined the Red Cross in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, led staff and volunteers in the effort to comfort victims of the Angora fire.
He emphasized that the grieving process is different for every individual and that the mission of the health workers was to help facilitate each individual’s own assessment of how they’re doing — not to provide “comprehensive therapy.”
“People when they need help, they’ll ask for it,” Lamb said. “Our job sometimes is to just stay out of the way. People have amazing built-in coping mechanisms. When they want help, they’ll ask for it. It’s not our place to try to hold people’s hands — that’s not what they want.”
Lamb also debunked a common theory about reaction in a time of crisis and the grieving process.
“The whole four stages of (grieving) are entirely bogus,” he said. “Everyone has their own stage and style. Saying everyone goes through the same steps just doesn’t apply under any circumstance.”
Lamb lauded the effort of El Dorado County health services officials, noting the Angora fire was the “smoothest, most fluid” crisis management he’s ever seen.
“I can’t explain to what extent they were prepared,” he said. “As soon as I arrived, I was handed a contact sheet and we were off and running. The people here have been phenomenal, especially those working in the shelters – they’ve worked miracles.”
The tone was understated and somber at the Lake Tahoe Community College shelter Friday, as victims met with counselors.
“We’re still shaky,” said Randy Vantine, who was meeting with a Red Cross worker with his wife, Shanna. “We’re going to go out there and look at the house to see if anything’s left this afternoon. I think it’ll hit us then.”
Vantine, who works part time as a cab driver and part time delivering mail for the Post Office, said he feels the urgency of the disaster “on and off.”
“This was supposed to be my biggest weekend of the year driving (a cab),” he said. “There’s a lot to think about – especially about what’s next. But they’re doing a good job of helping us look at what we need to do.”
Ralph Duran, an electrician and renter who lost all of his possessions in the fire, waited to meet with a Red Cross volunteer for both financial assistance and to perhaps talk to a professional about his experience.
“I just need to replace a few things for work like my boots,” he said. “I’m lucky, because I’ve been staying with my girlfriend. You know, when you think about it all — you think about the photos and the video that can’t be replaced. That’s what matters.
“I’m sure I’ll try to talk to someone about this at some point. It’s crossed my mind, but, you know, I’m also thinking about going to work on Monday and what I have to do to get going. I’ve been here 17 years and I’m not going to leave. The community is great and it’s going to survive this.”
Lamb said fallout for many on the emotional side will come in the weeks and months ahead.
“The Red Cross is only here for a short period,” Lamb said. “After that, individuals need to seek help if they feel something is wrong. Let’s face it, there’s a stigma in the mental health field. Nobody wants to go see a shrink and especially males have been trained to suppress.
“Sometimes, people are more scared by what they’re feeling than what actually happened. And that is normal.”
In similar disasters, such as the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 or Oakland Hills fire of 1991, officials who work with the Alameda County Health Department said in both scenarios, the long-term task of helping people cope was a priority.
“We learned from both events,” said Alameda County director of public health David Kears. “When we had the earthquake, we found short-term people reacted to having to be relocated, but long-term feelings of displacement became a factor.
“During the Oakland Hills fire, we lost firemen, so we had briefing and trauma assessment as we they were fighting the blaze for personnel. Long-term there was fallout there too and different ways to deal with the grief. But people, you find, are pretty resilient.”
Red Cross’ Lamb concurred and said the advice given to most victims is to think of another situation, another time of crisis and recall how they reacted then, what resources did they use, how did they get through it.
“Whatever you need to do, you do,” he said. “Whether it’s calling your brother to come up and visit or going to see someone, we know how to best help ourselves.”
While there is no prescribed formula to getting through a tragedy on the emotional side — everyone has bills to pay. Red Cross staff were on hand at the Lake Tahoe Community College shelter to advise people on money matters and, in some cases, give individuals enough to get by for the next several days.
“We do rely on donations and try to get people what they need,” Red Cross spokeswoman Beck said.
Long-term, El Dorado County officials said there are several avenues victims can explore to get back on their feet.
“A couple programs are income-specific,” said Mark Wiza, a housing program specialist for El Dorado County. “Some are eligible for HUD-funded rental assistance — that would be one long-term solution. There are also programs that help employees that have been laid off, or employers who have been effected.”
Overall, the message for many was clear as the fire still continued to be fought on hillsides Friday:
“I think it’s fair to say that we want people to come back and share this place — to try to start getting back to normal,” Duran said.