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The Journal Gazette

  • Eberhart

Sunday, January 07, 2018 1:00 am

Grief, stress after storm ebb slowly

Harvey survivors turn to therapists

Associated Press

DALLAS – Deb Eberhart couldn't sleep and was easily moved to tears as she worked to coordinate repairs to her Houston home in the months after flooding from Hurricane Harvey besieged it with 3 feet of water.

She clenched her jaw so hard that it hurt. She couldn't eat.

“I thought: 'Well, I'm not handling things as well as I should be,'” the 69-year-old retired teacher said.

Eberhart realized she needed help that had nothing to do with construction crews and insurance adjustors. So she joined storm survivors seeking help from therapists in the wake of the destructive winds and heavy rains in August that caused more than 80 deaths and an estimated $150 billion in damage in Texas.

Experts say the emotional distress caused by such an event can take many forms – grief, anxiety, depression, even fear of storms – and progress through several stages over a year or longer. Even months after the storm hit, new patients have been coming to free counseling being offered by private and government-funded programs.

In the small coastal town of Port Aransas, which experienced major destruction after Harvey made landfall nearby, psychologist Andrew Reichert said he began noticing a shift about a month ago in what was bringing people in.

“It's gone from kind of the immediate stress and shock to more just kind of a chronic stress and long-haul type of thing,” Reichert said. “A lot of my work is helping people prioritize and focus on what they can control versus what they can't.”

Eberhart headed to Austin before the storm hit, even though she thought her Houston home would be fine. She later received photos of the flooding at her house from a neighbor who used a boat. When she returned home, she was heartbroken by what she found: “Mud and slush, and everything just gone.”

The stress increased amid the frustrations of being displaced, remodeling work and the grief from losing irreplaceable items such as furniture that belonged to her mother and childhood photographs.

“I think after a while you just have to accept the fact that maybe you're just stuck in a place, and somebody can just get you over the hump and it would be a therapist,” Eberhart said.

She had her first counseling session in November with Judith Andrews, a psychologist who co-chairs the Texas Psychological Association's disaster resource network.

Andrews, whose organization is offering free counseling sessions, said survivors feel grief over the loss of both property and stability.

“They're grieving about the loss of what was,” she said.

The Texas Education Agency is heading a task force to mobilize the mental health response in schools. One goal is to help teachers understand how to spot children who might benefit from talking to someone, said Andy Keller, a psychologist and president and chief executive officer of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, which is collaborating with the state on the task force.