Battle With The Sea: Preparing For The Invisible Toll Of Climate Change

Sep 10, 2015

Nearly three years after Superstorm Sandy, some Rhode Island residents are still dealing with the aftermath. And it’s not just damage to buildings and property. These Rhode Islanders are struggling with mental illness related to stress. 

As we continue our series Battle With The Sea, we examine the hidden toll extreme weather events can take on mental health.

The short- and long-term effects that natural disasters have on health are well studied. So it’s no surprise that Superstorm Sandy caused mental stress in places like Westerly, where the storm ravaged beaches, homes, and businesses. Here’s how one resident describes it.

“After all of that, I was like, ‘what the hell just happened?’ you know. I felt like I was broke,” said Mary, who grew up in Rhode Island. We’re not using her real name because Westerly is a small town--she’s concerned about the stigma of mental illness.

She always heard stories about big storms like the Hurricane of 1938 and Hurricane Carol in 1954. But In her lifetime, she’d never seen anything like that at Misquamicut Beach.

“I used to hang down there every time there was a storm,” said Mary. “Hurricane parties. We used to have hurricane parties. Call up a big order of turkey dinner and have everybody come down and stay right there until they'd throw us out.”

So Mary hung around for Superstorm Sandy on that day in late October, not anticipating the devastating impact it would have.

Superstorm Sandy dumped sand from Misquamicut Beach onto Atlantic Avenue. Residents say the area was unrecognizable.
Credit RIPR File Photo

The sun was still out. The tide was supposed to be low, but then “…when the waves were coming in the streets, I said, ‘It’s time to go.’ That’s what she did, too.”

Mary points to her friend, Karen, sitting next to her. The two of them sought higher ground, but they couldn’t do anything to stop the waves from pounding their beachfront businesses, two of more than 30 that were severely damaged in the storm.

After that, Mary said she barely slept trying to protect her property from looters. And there was the added stress of learning her insurance wouldn’t cover all the damage. In some ways, she said it would have been better if the business had washed away.

“After all of that, I crashed mentally, mentally crashed,” said Mary. “So I went to a doctor and they said, ‘Oh you have post-traumatic stress disorder.’ They put me on a medication and I’m still trying to get off it.”

Rhode Island health officials don’t have a record of how many people suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after Sandy.

But other residents tell similar stories. And in many cases, the severity of the trauma wasn’t clear right away. For Mary’s friend Karen, it took months and months to sink in.

“So it wasn’t until it was over, that next October, that I was like, ‘We did it [and] oh my god, what did I just live through?’ I mean, I did the same thing, I finally went and saw someone,” said Karen, “but it didn't hit me. I feel like it was a full year.”

Much of the damage from Sandy was caused by a storm surge. That’s when winds swirling around a storm push water from the ocean to the shore. Storm surge combined with normal tides can raise the water level by several feet in just a few minutes.

Scientists expect these storm surges to become more frequent and intense as sea levels creep higher due to climate change.  

That means storms like Sandy may be more commonplace, along with damage to property and health effects like PTSD.

Superstorm Sandy damaged businesses and homes in Misquamicut when it raked through the area. The federal government awarded Rhode Island more than $39 million for its recovery efforts in storm-ravaged areas.
Credit RIPR File Photo

Services are available to help residents cope with the stress of a disaster, such as a hotline to call for help.

But as someone who has lived this, Mary said it may take a more concerted effort to reach people who are busy trying to rebuild their lives. “Maybe if they came on site and said, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Are you sleeping okay?’ and I’d say, ‘No, I’m not sleeping at all. I’m up all night long. My mind is racing. I can't shut it off.'"

Mary started drinking and smoking. “I was smoking like a smoking fiend you know and I’m not a smoker,” she said.

The federal government has a track record of providing money to cities and towns for long-term crisis counseling after natural disasters, like earthquakes and hurricanes. But that kind of support wasn’t available in Rhode Island after Sandy, said Lisa Konicki, executive director of the Westerly-Pawcatuck Chamber of Commerce. Residents had to figure it out on their own.

“Business owners here set up their own RV that they used to go and consult one another and have snacks or have a glass of wine,” said Konicki. “It was a kiss and cry booth, essentially. It was a support system that was self-made on the ground because there was no group providing that.”

Instead, the local chamber of commerce became the group leading the recovery effort in the area, organizing volunteers and raising money for local businesses. Konicki said the chamber awarded small grants to repair damage to buildings.

“And while the buildings have recovered, some of the beings have not,” she said. “We still have a ways to go.”

State officials are aware the aftermath of Sandy deeply affected people’s psyches. Julia Gold, the health department’s climate change program coordinator, said her department hosted a workshop in the spring to start talking about crisis counseling after severe weather events.

“Everyone is strapped so I think [it’s a matter of] figuring out how to collaborate or how to leverage funds from other programs to be able to do that kind of work,” said Gold. “But I do think it’s a great idea and something that is necessary.”

"And while the buildings have recovered, some of those beings have not. We still have a ways to go."

Gold said the health department is looking to work with state’s mental health agency and other mental health centers around the state to continue planning for the future.

But for Mary, the idea of another storm is overwhelming.

“It's too short of a season for us to be going through something like that,” said Mary. “You know, it’s just a very short season that we making a living and when something like that happens, it's like, that was way too hard, and too much work, and too much mental stress, and people don't realize that for us to put that all back together.”

Scientists project that climate change may likely bring more storms in storm-affected areas -- storms that last for days and bring heavy winds and floods. And with them, damage both physical and mental. That means states like Rhode Island are trying to learn lessons from Sandy and more severe disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

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