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Disasters and Community Trauma: Stories of Courage and Survival, part 1

Guest post by GTF faculty member Dr. Ann-Marie Neale, Karen Horney Professor of Counseling and Psychology

Counseling Survivors of Disasters and Community Trauma” is an E-Tutorial offered by Dr. Neale through the GTF.  This E-Tutorial is designed to help familiarize the student with types of disasters, phases of disasters, the victims, and appropriate intervention and collaboration efforts for clergy, chaplains, and mental health counselors.


Yesterday I turned on the evening news and heard the reporter announce that it was the six month anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s destructive path through New York and New Jersey. How have these communities and residents survived over the last half year? Apparently 39,000 people are still displaced from their homes; 250 families continue to live in hotels; and over eight million dollars in relief aid has been paid through FEMA and the national flood insurance. Individual survivors were interviewed, some that have been able to return to their homes and rebuild; others who face having their homes demolished as they will never be habitable again. We were shown images of houses still sitting in the bay and others literally cleaved in two. Rockaway, New York has street after street of damaged and empty homes which has forever changed the neighborhoods and those who lived there. I recalled the image of an elderly woman days after the hurricane walking through the rubble where her home of over 40 years once stood. As she grieved the loss of her home and all her possessions, she reached down and picked up a damaged but intact photograph of her parents’ wedding day. Suddenly her face beamed with joy at this found treasure. But she walked away saying “I just want to go home but where is my home?”

According to the newscaster, there will be two different summers in Seaside Heights, New Jersey this year: One for visitors as the city rebuilds the famous boardwalk so tourism can once again flourish and bring needed income to the area and joy to all, and one for the residents who struggle to rebuild their lives and accept that they can never return to their previous homes or neighborhoods. A camera then panned to a sign that read: Jersey Strong!

As I watched the news unfold, I was reminded of how many varied and different disasters the United States has experienced since Hurricane Sandy landed last November. For example, the following December there was a terrible and horrific elementary school shooting and massacre of innocent children, their teachers and Principal in Newtown, Connecticut. I recalled how that very Principal rushed towards the gunman in an attempt to stop his wave of destruction and died for those in her care. I was reminded of the Catholic Priest who had the excruciating task of notifying parents that their children did not survive. I saw this courageous and caring priest turn his back to the camera as his tears flowed and heard him say to someone: I am just so very very tired… A stark reminder of the toll these tragedies take on the first responders and volunteers reaching out to victims, survivors and families.
Last February a sink hole in Florida literally swallowed up a 36 year old man who had just gone to bed. Sink holes are areas that open up in the ground due to the instability of the soil. These holes can be as large as 100 feet wide and just as deep. Sink holes occur in Florida because of the state’s terrain- the ground has sandy soil, clay and limestone. In addition, Florida has many underground caverns filled with water. Shifting of the soft soil as well as pockets of loose sand cause the ground to give way, often without warning. The victim’s brother jumped into the sink hole in a courageous but vain attempt to rescue him. First responders risked their lives to pull the brother to safety so he would not be swallowed up as well. An entire neighborhood watched as the house was demolished to fill up the dangerous sink hole, which became the final resting place for the victim. Workers respectfully carried belongings out of the home—including a family bible that the owners reverently held as they watched their home fall to the wrecking ball. Neighbors on either side had to evacuate their homes never to return as their houses were also declared unsafe and therefore condemned. As several other sinkholes developed in the surrounding neighborhoods, residents became fearful for their own safety and the real estate value of the area has suffered. The victim’s brother has experienced survival guilt as he lives with the memory of his sibling’s voice begging someone to help, trying to rescue him and not being able to do so. Although this brother understands that he did all he could; nevertheless, the haunting and poignant memory will remain with him always. Hopefully with time and love from family and friends and his church community, he will experience healing and acceptance.


Another news story this week focused on the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing which affected countless individuals, the community of Boston, international visitors and the nation as a whole as we once again were reminded of the ever present threat of terrorism. The mayor of Boston talked about his decision to sign himself out of the hospital against medical advice the day of the bombing after having recent foot surgery. He felt it was necessary to show the residents and terrorists that Boston is and its people are resilient. We were then shown a video of the courageous and caring mayor standing up despite obvious physical pain while speaking to the citizens of Boston days after the bombing. The news segment ended with the image of a sign that read: Boston Strong!

Tonight while watching one of my favorite “feel good” shows, Dancing With The Stars, I learned about a professional ballroom dancer from Boston who lost her left foot and part of her lower leg in the bombing. Through the support of her husband who had just returned from Afghanistan, as well as her extended family and friends along with the expertise of caring physiotherapists, she is bound and determined to dance again. Dancing With The Stars will not only be following this remarkable woman’s story of recovery over the next few months, they will also be choreographing a dance routine which she will perform on the show when she is ready. As I listened to this courageous, woman talk about her love of dance, her injury, her dark times and her determination to triumph over this tragedy, I thought that she truly exemplifies what Dr. Viktor Frankl called the “Defiant Power of the Human Spirit.”
I was also reminded of the terrible burden of survivor guilt while watching an interview with one of the runners at the Boston Marathon. Although she was not hurt, several of her family and friends suffered moderate to severe injuries. The runner told the reporter that she felt “guilty.” The interviewer looked astonished and said “Why are you feeling guilty?” The runner said: “If it weren’t for me, they would not have been at that finish line. Also, if I had run faster, they would have already left the area.” Then the runner paused for what seemed like several minutes but was probably only a few seconds and sadly said again: “If I had run faster….” In the silence that followed, the interviewer seemed at a loss for words. This survivor felt guilty that her friends and family wanted to support her and felt guilty that she did not perform better– in her mind, these were two reasons they were injured. It is wonderful to hear the compassion she feels for her friends and family; however, the survivor guilt may be something she will live with for some time.


The examples of the Marathon runner and the brother of the sink hole victim remind me that it may not always be helpful to tell survivors that they should not feel guilty. Instead, we can be a comforting presence; allow them to voice their feelings and show compassion for their grief and sorrow. We can remind survivors that we care and are willing to listen. As time passes, they will hopefully be able to find ways to do something positive in honor of those who were hurt. As a colleague, Dr. Teria Shantall, reminded me, sometimes tragedies bring forth a love of life, a deep compassion and an awed respect for others.

Another incident that happened shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing was a technological disaster caused by a fire and subsequent explosion at a fertilizer plant in the small town of West, Texas. Almost a dozen people died with hundreds injured and countless homes destroyed. One of the victims was an off-duty Dallas firefighter who volunteered his services. He was trapped in the building when the explosion occurred and became a hero who will be remembered by those who live after. The mayor of West Texas was asked to identify the dead and sadly told news reporters that he personally knew each of the victims and their families. This Texas community was forever changed in an instant.

If all this were not enough, we have also been watching the severe flooding in Illinois and North Dakota as well as other Midwest States. Hundreds of homes have been submerged in flood waters and at least one man drowned as his truck was swept away by the current. And lest we forget that disasters are happening all over the world, we read in the news last week that a building under construction in Bangladesh collapsed killing countless people.

Finally this week was the twenty-second anniversary of the opening of the New York Holocaust Museum. Over one thousand people attended the ceremony to honor this memorial including holocaust survivors and military men and women who liberated the camps. The decision to have a ceremony this year instead of waiting until the twenty-fifth anniversary was influenced by the advanced ages of the survivors and the members of the military that were present during the liberation. This will likely be the last time most of them will be alive to share and remember. As one former soldier said: It is so important to honor those who died and those who survived so we will never forget! I was thus reminded of the importance of ceremony and ritual as ways to promote healing after tragedy.


Dr. Neale shares more inspirational stories and ways to help survivors and responders in part 2 of this post.

About Dr. Neale

Dr. Neale will serve as Moderator of the Clinical Colloquium “Logotherapy and Existential Analysis in Trauma Exposure” during the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy’s 19th World Congress held this June 19-23 in Dallas, Texas.

Dr. Ann-Marie Neale is Karen Horney Professor of Counseling and Psychology at the GTF.  She is a Registered Nurse and holds a Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy in Clinical Psychology from Michigan State University. She is an Academic Associate and Dipomate in Logotherapy from the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy in Abilene, Texas. Dr. Neale’s specialized areas of interest include Logotherapy; survivors of natural disasters; 12-step recovery programs for addicts, alcoholics & families; physical illness and mental health; aging in modern society; and gender issues in the workplace, among others. She serves as a Thesis Supervisor, Project Consultant and E-Tutorial faculty at the GTF. Read more…

3 Responses to Disasters and Community Trauma: Stories of Courage and Survival, part 1

  • As a 1997 graduate of GTF, I thought the “emergency medical services” bug had gone from me, but I keep feeling drawn back. I was a medic in the Air Force and a Paramedic in civilian live until a career ending back injury, which has left me in chronic pain.

    Reading this blog today makes me want to find a way to go back into disaster response, but this time as a Critical Incident Stress Debriefer and as a Chaplain. I wonder if anyone will have me.

    • Dr. Ann-Marie Neale says:

      Dear Padre Dave,

      It give me such joy to read your post and know that my blog has encouraged you to “find your way back into disaster response.” Although I am sure there are other community agencies that would love to have you on their team, I can certainly recommend that you get in touch with your local Red Cross, Their Disaster Response Team would likely welcome you with open arms! I hope you will read Part II of my blog which has been posted today.

      Best Regards,
      Dr. Neale