published Monday, June 6th, 2011

Some tornado victims face long road to recovery

WHO MAY BE AFFECTED

People of all ages may exhibit any one of these symptoms, but children and older adults are of special concern. Symptoms of disaster trauma in children can include excessive fear of the dark, crying, fear of being alone and constant worry.


WHOM TO CONTACT

• CBI Counseling Center in Chattanooga is offering free counseling to those directly affected by the storms through most of the summer. Call 756-2894 for more information.

• Contacts provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency:

Alabama: 1-800-367-0955 Additional free resources can be found at mh.alabama.gov.

Georgia: 1-800-715-4225

Hamilton County: Liane DeSouza, 423-236-2081

Bradley County: Youth Counseling Services, 423-476-1933

(There is no statewide number for Tennessee, according to FEMA)


COPING TIPS

Signs that indicate someone may be suffering from stress include:

• Having trouble concentrating or remembering

• Difficulty making decisions

• Replaying the storm’s events over and over in one’s mind

• Feeling depressed or sad

• Experiencing anxiety or fear

• Nightmares

• Having trouble sleeping

• Feeling overwhelmed


STEPS TO RECOVERY

• Give yourself time to heal. Anticipate that this will be a difficult time in your life. Allow yourself to mourn your losses and try to be patient with changes in your emotional state.

• Ask for support from people who care about you and who will listen and empathize with your situation. Remember that your supporters may also have experienced or witnessed the trauma.

• Communicate your experience in ways comfortable to you, such as talking with family or close friends, or keeping a diary.

• Find out about local support groups for victims of natural disasters.

• Try to find groups led by appropriate professionals such as psychologists. Group discussion can help people realize that others in the same circumstances may have similar reactions and emotions.

• Helping others, even during your own time of distress, can give you a sense of control and make you feel better about yourself.

• Avoid major life decisions such as switching careers or jobs if possible, because these activities tend to be highly stressful.

Source: FEMA and the Alabama Department of Health.

TRENTON, Ga.—Cordia Natalizia misses her flowers — the lilies, irises and rose bushes she nurtured every day outside her Trenton home, coaxing them into bloom each spring and faithfully watering them all summer long.

Now all she has left is one small crape myrtle struggling to grow. It alone survived the tornado that sent walls crashing down all around Natalizia as she sat on her couch. The rest of her once-beautiful yard is a dustbowl; anything remaining after the storm was scraped clean by contractors working to rebuild her home.

On Thursday, 71-year-old Natalizia watched the builders pour concrete footings and place corner stakes to mark the walls of what will be her new home. She remained stoic as she described the April 27 tornado that left her dazed and unable to recognize close friends for days, that stripped away her home and forced her to move in with family members.

But she cried when she talked about her flowers.

“Everything is gone, and it seems like it will never get back together,” she said, as she lifted her glasses and wiped away the tears with weathered hands. “You wake up every day and have to tell yourself that this really happened. Some days the depression sets in, and it is hard to go on.

“I wonder if I am ever going to be able to lie down in my own bed at night and not worry every time a dark cloud comes,” she added.

RECOVERY BEGINS

In the more than five weeks since tornadoes twisted away the familiar lives of hundreds of families from Rainsville, Ala., to Cleveland, Tenn., recovery has begun. The continuous buzz of chain saws has stilled now that much of the debris has been cleared away.

Many volunteers packed up and moved on to Joplin, Mo., and Massachusetts to help with tornado recovery there. Road crews have picked up many of the massive piles of branches and lumber lining the roads. Cooking crews that had set up in parking lots and churches have closed their grills.

But for people like Natalizia, the tornadoes permeate every moment of their lives, ripping apart their sense of self and overwhelming them with a strange and uncertain reality. Recovery has begun, but the reality of how long it will take is a daily realization.

People have places to live, but they are with family members or in cramped travel trailers, where even making a cup of coffee is difficult. There are insurance agencies to negotiate with and construction crews to hire. For those without insurance, the struggle to find money for recovery is even more overwhelming.

“During the initial phase of the crisis, there is a lot of love and support from volunteers, from agencies, from the community,” said John Ziegler, spokesman for the Alabama Department of Mental Health. “But then that goes away. The volunteers go home, and the shelters are closed. It creates a delayed effect.”

“ASK FOR HELP”

Emotional recovery from a disaster such as a tornado can take months and even years, and many people can benefit from crisis counseling, Ziegler said. The Alabama department has received a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to launch “Project Rebound” to help tornado victims.

Georgia and Tennessee have similar programs, with numbers people can call to be connected to counselors. In Hamilton County, a licensed counselor is at the Collegedale disaster recovery center part of every day and also can be reached by phone.

Everyone who needs help throughout the recovery process can get free counseling, often through local volunteer counselors, FEMA spokesman Don Bolger stressed.

“It doesn’t matter if you qualify for FEMA aid or not, you can still get free counseling,” he said. “All you have to do is ask.”

The Alabama grant helps pay for crisis counselors to go to areas throughout the state that were hit by tornadoes, Ziegler said. They go door to door to provide help. They also stop at coffee shops and popular hangouts to find where victims live.

“In a lot of these areas, there are no longer any doors to knock on, so they use all sorts of ways to reach people,” Ziegler said.

Crisis counselors don’t just provide counseling, they also help out with practical problems, such as insurance frustrations or ways to get other help, Ziegler said. People who need additional psychological help can get referrals to local counselors. Faith-based groups and other agencies also work with them to provide help and support.

“This is not a matter of toughness,” Ziegler said. “It’s OK to get someone to help you. Even tough guys like soldiers and firefighters suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Ask for help to get through this.”

“EVERYBODY IS GONE”

For Donna Hannah, the hardest part of the recovery process is her changed neighborhood. The Hannahs’ Trenton home was picked up off its foundation and its windows blown out, but it is still livable. Once power was restored, they moved back in, even if the floors buckle, and they scrub and clean every day to get the shingle particles out of their belongings.

But everyone else is gone. The homes on both sides were destroyed. The apartment complex across the street exploded into smithereens. Their longtime neighbors now live with families in various parts of Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee.

Every morning, when Hannah opens her front door, the devastation stretches out all around her. All day long, she listens to the sound of chain saws and the clanking of bulldozers clearing rubble.

“It’s so hard; everybody is gone,” Hannah, 56, said. She sobs, covering her face with her hands. She works at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and had plans to do “fun” things this summer, but the tornado changed that.

“I miss having the neighbor’s grandchildren playing in the front yard. I know we are lucky, but sometimes I wish it would have just taken our house, too,” she said. “We have to live in the middle of this and see it every day.”

Their three huge silver maples in the front yard and a hickory tree in the backyard are gone. The air conditioner runs all day long, but barely cools their home below 80 degrees because the insulation was sucked out of their attic. When it rains, the roof leaks.

Her husband, 67-year-old William Hannah, had a heart attack a week after the tornado and is still recovering. His doctor said it was caused by stress, Donna Hannah said. She has an upper respiratory infection that refuses to go away. The realization that nothing will ever be the same is hard to accept.

“I know we are blessed and the Lord watched over us,” she said. “But it is going to take a long time to recover. Trenton will never be the same in our lifetime.”

“YOU MISS YOUR HOUSE”

Natalizia is living with family members while her home is rebuilt. Every few days, her sister drives her down to the site to see the progress because she can’t drive and has difficulty walking on her own.

She is grateful for a place to stay and said she doesn’t want to complain.

“You miss the privacy,” she said. “And not having your own TV. It makes it harder because I can’t care for myself.”

She is from Rhode Island and survived blizzards and hurricanes, she said. This tornado is worse, but she hasn’t given up. She wants to plant more flowers.

“If anyone has any answers, tell them to call me,” she calls out impishly as she heads back to her temporary home.

FEMA doesn’t track information about how many families are still living in temporary housing, but thousands of homes in the tri-state area sustained major damage or were destroyed.

Larry and Beverly Henegar’s temporary home is a small travel trailer parked in front of what used to be their home. The storm blew through the house, damaging the interior and destroying their belongings. Larry Henegar said the home will have to be gutted and completely rebuilt inside.

After living in a motel in Tiftonia for the first month, the couple moved back to Trenton last week.

“It turns you upside down,” Larry Henegar said. “You get your whole routine turned sideways. You miss your house. The first three or four weeks it didn’t really soak in, but then it hits you.”

The couple has tried to make the trailer seem as homey as possible, with pots of purple petunias in planters next to the “front” door. A tomato grows on a nearby patio. The trailer is a little small, Henegar said, but they are surviving.

Larry has gone back to work at his job at O’Reilly’s Auto Parts, and Beverly has returned to her hair salon. Larry is focused on getting the roof put back on his mother’s home up the street. Once that is finished, he can turn to his house. But it likely will be at least September before they can move back in, he said.

“It is a slow, long process but you ain’t got but one direction and that is to move forward,” he said. “We’ll get there.”

about Mariann Martin...

Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...

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