Volunteers, Experts Aid and Advise Older Flood Victims
By LINDA COMINS
As torrents of muddy water stream into basements and living quarters, residents spring into action or recoil in fear of the danger that has invaded their domicile. After the initial shock, people begin the arduous task of cleanup, removing water and mud from their dwellings, yards and streets and discarding ruined belongings.
For most people, the initial shock after a flood is replaced by determination and resiliency as they assess the damage and launch the recovery process. However, seeking or accepting help with cleanup can be difficult for people who accustomed to being self-sufficient. For some older people who sustain catastrophic losses, the thought of starting over is incomprehensible.
Seniors may have difficulty adjusting to the “new normal” of daily life post-flood. A new study from the University of Michigan finds that effects of disasters last longer for older adults.
Most of the cleanup from July 23 and July 28 flash floods is complete in Ohio County, but work continues for residents and volunteers in portions of Marshall, Wetzel and Belmont counties that were hit hard by the July 28 flood. Volunteers say some elderly residents in Hundred seem reluctant to seek help.
It’s too early to tell what lasting impact the flooding will have on older adults in the affected areas. The Rev. Sherri Schafer, executive director of Community Lutheran Partners, a group that is a member of West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, said older residents have had more difficulty coping in the aftermath of deadly flash flooding in south-central West Virginia in June 2016.
In the Northern Panhandle, volunteers who have been involved in flood cleanup have shared accounts of older residents’ resiliency in the face of disaster.
One of those resilient seniors is 92-year-old Virginia Cage, who has lived in her Wheeling home for 64 years. She is grateful for the help she received from Christian Appalachian Project’s disaster relief program.
Cage hopes she will be able to restore her home after the basement was flooded by backwater during the storms. She and her late husband moved into their then-new home in 1953 and reared two sons there.
“If Christian Appalachian Project had not been here to help me, I don’t know how I would have worked it out,” said Cage, who needs a wheelchair to assist with mobility. “I would have cried a lot.”
Her next-door neighbors, Frank and Betty Ennis, check on her frequently; they discovered her home had been affected. “We had sewage backed up in our basement, so we knew we had to check on Virginia.”
The Ennises lost their washer, dryer, furnace and hot water heater. Cage also lost her hot water heater and furnace to the flash flooding that left her basement coated with mud.
“The water just came down over the hill,” Cage said. “The creek out front never even came up over the road; it was the water coming down the hill.”
Christian Appalachian Project’s disaster relief program responded to the flooding in Ohio and Marshall counties through a partnership that connects agencies from Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia. CAP staff and volunteers helped muck out Cage’s basement and treated the Ennis family’s basement which had mold starting to grow along the bottom of the walls.
“I kept calling trying to get help because both of my sons live out of state,” Cage said. “Once Betty talked to someone and I knew I was on the list to get help, it helped my stress level. Knowing help was on the way made me feel better.”
Tina Bryson, manager of public relations for Christian Appalachian Project, recalled meeting Cage. “She was saying how she didn’t know how she was going to be able to clean out the basement. She is in a wheelchair,” Bryson said.
“She was very grateful that someone was coming by. She felt bad asking for help; she thought others had a greater need. But at CAP, we are here to help, however we can help.”
Bryson said CAP representatives also met a 94-year-old woman who was trying to clean her house by herself. The elderly resident had moved her furniture to one side, but had not been able to remove the mud from the premises.
A team of volunteers “was able to get mud and dirt out of her house,” Bryson said. “Mold was growing on the walls. They (the volunteers) cleaned the walls and sprayed the walls.”
Recalling the 94-year-old woman’s experience, Bryson related, “Her knees were dirty and wet. She had been down on her knees.
“Those are the situations … We’re here to help. Robyn (Renner, coordinator of the disaster relief program) is passionate about getting people the help they need. No one should feel bad about calling because they didn’t think their need was bad enough,” Bryson commented.
She recommended that when a natural disaster occurs, older adults should call a hotline early to seek assistance to assess the damage so they can get help before problems become larger.
Rose Hart, director of Appalachian Outreach in Marshall County, said spiritual care teams were present in McMechen through Samaritan’s Purse, one of the faith-based relief agencies helping flood victims.
“People say, “I can do it myself.’ That’s a misconception. They do need the help; they do need someone to talk with; they do need friends to help deal with the stress with what happened and the stress when they see heavy rain again,” Hart said.
Hart recounted seeing a woman, in tears, saying, “I don’t know where to start.” Hart reassured her, advising, “You do not have do it all today.”
If the Federal Emergency Management Agency makes a disaster declaration, an unmet needs committee will be formed and will set up case management to see “what needs to be done, what we need to do as a community,” Hart said. VOAD partners are willing to help with local agencies, she added.
She added, “The other misconception is that they will be back to where they were the day before the flood … They have to deal with that idea of loss and the grieving process.”
Regarding recovery, Hart said, “It’s a long process, painfully long, I admit. With collaboration, communication and cooperation, it will come out so much better.”
Meanwhile, Patricia M. Bailey, a clinical psychologist in Wheeling, offered advice for older adults and community leaders to deal with long-term effects that may develop and linger after the immediate crisis passes.
While the act of the flood itself is the primary trauma, Bailey said secondary trauma can be exacerbated by older adults’ lack of support systems. “In today’s world, children are no longer living with them or by them. They don’t have them available there to help,” she said.
“We tend to rely on neighbors in our community,” but in events such as a flood, “they’re not going to be available because they have their own traumas,” she said. As a community, she added, “We need to pay attention to people being cut off from support systems.”
She said, “While we think there is availability of people to come out and take charge, sometimes resources are limited. They (victims) may be in a holding pattern to help with cleanup and some other things.”
In the weeks and months after a flood, seniors may brood over the loss of irreplacable items — such as wedding album and their children’s baby pictures –that held great meaning to them.
“They might lose some of their prized possessions,” Bailey said. “For some older people, they’re very sentimental. They may have lived through other floods and traumas, and those keepsakes are important to them. They can’t replace them. That’s pretty devastating to them.”
Seniors’ physical health also may be affected adversely by circumstances after a disaster. “Older people are going to be on medications; they may have lost their medications in the flood or they may not able to access them because they can’t get back to their home to get them,” she said.
For people who have pre-existing conditions such as anxiety or depression, a flood or other trauma can cause the condition to flare up or become worse. “There are a lot of cases where a lot of older people can develop post-traumatic stress disorder, what we call PTSD,” the specialist said. “We can’t always predict who is going to develop it. Some can muster and grit; others fall apart.”
On a positive note, a tragedy may bring out the best of human nature. In these instances, Bailey said, “Churches try to rally to get people to come up. You get to see the good side of a community. You see people who band together, provide meals, go in and do the actual cleanup.”
She suggests that people perform simple acts of kindness during and after a crisis. “Maybe it’s offering to take your neighbor to the doctor, or help get them something from the store,” she said. “They are in shock. They don’t know what they need. They don’t want to be a bother.”
The “scariest thing” for older adults is that “a lot of their family members don’t live by them anymore. In today’s world, everybody is so scattered,” she observed.
The timing of an event also can affect one’s reaction and coping mechanism. The clinical psychologist said, “When we look at trauma, we must consider: is the situation something that was predictable or spur of the moment? That does make a big difference for people.”
People can prepare for an event that is expected, but in the case of a flash flood, “a lot of people are in shock.There may be a delayed response to how they react,” Bailey explained.