Disaster and Tragedy: The Emotional Cost

In 2001 I spent days watching footage from Japan. Then last week Hurricane Sandy. What struck me with both was my utter numbness.

It seems inhuman and inhumane to admit this in the face of such horror and suffering on such an incomprehensible scale as the tsunami and now another devastating storm. During the tsunami what broke through that numbness was a shoe.

Not a child’s shoe, the camera shot you’d expect, but a man’s black leather shoe covered with mud and detritus, alone, protruding from a mountain of debris as if struggling towards the light.

It was that shoe that broke me.

I’ve walked in shoes like those, obviously not the same size, style, colour or material, but very similar and that same journey, as have my family. Different time, circumstances and continent but I recognise the road, and can see the path ahead for the man whose shoes these are, if he’s alive.

Watching the reports I felt my insides start to give way and turn to mush. I watched the reporters, adrenalin driven, talking a little too fast, a slightly higher pitched voice than normal, a mix of excitement and horror, thanking God this was not happening on their home turf.

Watching the eyes of the survivors, the 1000-yard stare, the disbelief and horror on their faces, the knowledge they have survived still not registering as they look for loved ones, news of friends, neighbours, the guy who owned the corner shop on their street. Nothing else will matter for them right now except to know who is alive or dead.

They won’t be functioning on a rational level, their bodies and emotions automatically shut down as their minds struggle to process the disaster. Even hunger will be secondary until the mind can process the new reality they’re in.

Good job too. If they could process how life will be for the next days, weeks, months years, maybe decades, they might turn their faces to the wall and give up. The human spirit will do all it can to make sure that doesn’t happen, although for many that will be their journey.

As I watched the camera zoom out to piles of debris, cars precariously perched on trees and houses, my memories superimposed their ghostly images on top, and I was reliving my neighbourhood, my town, my city. Hurricane Katrina, 29 August 2005.

And I knew what was missing from these reports from the other side of the world. We see them we hear them, but it’s the other senses that make the picture whole. Smell, taste and touch.

We saw the water as it raged liked an unleashed leviathan, were awed by the force of its black broiling power. It was like watching the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse come riding in.

As the oozing mess dries out the survivors, reporters, rescue workers, Red Cross and other support organizations will have their senses assailed in ways they will never forget.

The stench – a sweet sickly mix of death, decay and sewage mixed with burning bonfires, some accidental, some deliberate. The smell is like a living entity, it catches in your throat, makes your eyes burn and stomach heave, you fight to stop the vomit rising.

You taste that smell in your mouth, it seeps into the pores of your skin, it envelopes you. Everything you touch smells of that cloying, heavy, syrupy perfume. The scent of putrification and decay. Everything becomes infected and contaminated with it – soul, spirit, mind, emotions.

Watching mother nature at her most powerful we face the insignificance of ourselves and the awe-full reality of our own mortality in the face of her wrath. It’s sobering – we are nothing in the scheme of things. Getting our arrogant human heads round that one takes some doing.

The survivors will be adrenalin junkies for months, it’s what will give them strength each day to get up and get on with it. They’ll do it and do it well. Their shoes will move them forward – they will be driven to make things normal again, except it never will be. Not as they knew it.

Heartbreakingly, months from now, the pages of obituaries in the newspapers will be more than they should – cancers and heart conditions will have increased along with suicides, divorces, mental and physical breakdowns. These will be casualties of the tsunami just as much as those who lost their lives when the wave hit.

What will break through the fragility of these people as they struggle to find order in their destroyed lives will not be the bureaucracy, insurance companies, rogue contractors and swarms of storm chasers. They will descend like the roaches and rats already running over the debris, breeding and spreading disease. Those evils can be fought with rage, head on, face to face.

What breaks those determined spirits, allows their hearts to feel and begin to heal will be the kindness of strangers. The gentle touch on an arm, the look in the eye and the half smile from another human being who lets you know they are there, you are not alone. It is those tiny gestures that will make the spirit crumble and roar with pain, like an infected boil lanced and purified. Painful but necessary.

For me it was the National Guard handing out MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat), the Red Cross bringing lunches in their van with a cheery smile and words of encouragement as we rebuilt our homes and lives. We needed to know that somewhere in the world people had normal lives and one day we would too.

The assistant at the opticians in Wal-Mart – when asked if could have contact lenses without prescription immediately went to find out, tracked us down in the store, handed us free lenses and hugged us while she cried.

The kennels in Houston who boarded our dogs and refused payment when we finally took them home.

Our friend Dave who opened his door and took us in – his neighbours who brought cookies and offers of bedding and spare rooms because they saw our vehicles had Louisiana licence plates and understood.

And nearly a year later sitting in a gym at the end of the school year listening to Daniel Powter’s I’ve Had a Bad Day, watching images scrolling on a huge video screen. Photos and film clips showing a destroyed school rebuilt by the willpower, determination and volunteer labour of parents and staff, whose own homes had been lost and damaged. They believed if the school opened families could come home. They took in every child they could.

Looking round on that hot steamy morning in May, stunned by the absolute stillness of everyone in the gym, I realised every adult, including me, had tears streaming down their faces. Huge strapping hulks of southern men unafraid and unashamed at their open demonstation of emotion. They didn’t care who saw, it was a public acknowledgement of loss and the celebration of recovery and renewal.

It’s those kindnesses that make us feel again, break down the barriers and start to make us whole. Shared humanity and caring. Realising that when the chips are down we only have each other.

Last night something finally broke through those psychological blocks and bars on the box buried deep in a quiet corner of me marked ‘Hurricane Katrina’ and came screaming and roaring out.

In bed, surrounded by the darkness and calm of a sleeping house, I watched the rapid kaleidoscopic flashbacks flickering in vibrant colours across the backs of my eyes and felt the hot tears sliding relentlessly down my face.

I cried for the people in Japan, Christchurch, Brisbane and all the disasters before and those yet to come. For the frightened children, the broken adults, the lost souls not just in disasters but struggling every day in their own hell somewhere in the world.

I cried for my husband who couldn’t fix it though he tried – my children whose lives are forever changed by what they saw and lived through. For myself because I can’t forget.

This morning I woke up, put the feelings back in their box and moved on, because that’s what we have to do. I refuse to be defined by one experience for the rest of my life.

However, if you’re ever with me and Cold Play’s Fix You starts to play, please forgive me if I have to walk away.

There are some triggers which get me every time.


About wordgeyser

Our anglo/american family used to live in four countries (USA, Canada, UK and the Netherlands) on two continents, separated by distance, time zones, circumstance and cultures. It has been a scary, enriching, challenging place to be. The only things guaranteed to get us through were a sense of humour and the amazing people met along the way. . . This year everything changed with a move for us from the Netherlands, – and a move along with us for our son and his wife from the UK – to Houston, Texas, the same city as our daughter. With our youngest in Vancouver, Canada, we are now all living on the same continent. How this happened, and more importantly why, will be the subject of this ongoing blog...
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8 Responses to Disaster and Tragedy: The Emotional Cost

  1. Jane says:

    Reaching for the tissues myself….

  2. Shell says:

    I can’t imagine what you went through. Your compassion for others’ struggles really shines through in your post, though.

  3. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live through hurricane Katrina. I can see how the tsunami in Japan would be a trigger for you. That level of devastation isn’t something I’d imagine you ever get over. I too am glued to the television. Watching the images of lost cities and lives. It’s unbelievable that water can cause so much damage.

  4. This is the most beautifully crafted, heartfelt ode to pain, suffering, heartbreak, survival, hope and the human condition. So so beautiful.

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