Florence, you were NOT invited

Since my last blog post, my beautiful home of Eastern North Carolina has been chewed up, swallowed, and then spit back out with a vengeance by yet another catastrophic hurricane. My heart literally hurts. I have seen Eastern NC devastated before but I am afraid that Hurricane Florence has taken this to a new level.

Although the flood waters have yet to even start receding in many communities, The Weather Channel, as well as most other media outlets have all long packed up and moved on to the next flash in the pan story. According to most Americans, “we dodged a bullet” here in NC since we missed a direct Category 4 hit . Meanwhile a week after the storm made landfall, people were still being rescued by Black Hawk helicopters and many communities are completely cut off by washed out roads or covered by water. Hmmmmm…not sure which bullet they are talking about…seems like a direct shot to me.

To add great insult to injury, many of the same communities impacted by this storm were also severely impacted less than two years ago by Hurricane Matthew.  I am sorry Florence but no one and I do mean NO ONE remembers inviting you! We have all checked our calendars both digital and fancy paper ones and there was no space, no line, and certainly no fancy sticker allowing time for you to pound us. Yet, here we are again Eastern NC, …inhale…sigh.

No Stranger to Hurricanes

In 2017, I led a crisis counseling program for survivors of Hurricane Matthew. This experience tested, stretched, and grew me like no other professional experience ever. There is nothing anyone can ever teach you in school or training that can prepare you to sit eye to eye with another human being who has lost everything. Increasingly difficult, to counsel with those who have lost everything for the second go around. I was more often the student than teacher in this job for sure. In fact, the resiliency and the human spirit I witnessed in the people I met during my work with HOPE 4 NC inspired me to create Resiliency Counseling and Consulting.

So, when I received the call a few days after Hurricane Florence unleashed her wrath on Eastern NC, to serve as a crisis counselor for those who had been forced to leave their homes. I said, “I got this”. I mean come on, I have done this before and I have all this fancy counseling and public health education. So, feeling prepared for this challenge, I packed my mental health backpack with bubbles, balloons, coloring supplies, and… just like that…I was off!

Yeah…I got this,,, Or So I Thought

If you have never been inside of a shelter during a natural disaster it is like stepping into another world. By the time I arrived, many of these people had been here since the first bands of the storm rolled in on Thursday and it was now Tuesday. Six days away from home and as wonderful as the staff and volunteers can try… this is certainly not a luxury vacation. Cots lined up as far as the eye can see, a sea of people, children running around, and in general… just organized chaos.

Impacts on Children

As I worked my way around the room, I naturally gravitated to the children. As I chatted with them about how they were doing, we would pull out bubbles or crayons and play. Most of them were oblivious to the severity of the situation. They just knew that a big storm came and now they were safe. In that moment, true to children, the contents of my bag were way more important than the storm.

As they giggled and asked to braid my hair, my heart sank as I thought how many of their schools were likely damaged. On top of losing their homes their schools are also underwater. The impact on the education for many children in Eastern NC will be gravely impacted by this storm.

My public health brain suddenly recalled a report I once read on the educational impacts after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Students lost up to an entire year of their education resulting in a huge increase in retention rates not to mention the emotional ramifications of living in multiple places.  In my field we call these Adverse Childhood Experiences and they have great long-term impacts on physical and mental health.

 Suddenly I didn’t feel as confident as I had initially entering this room.

Meet Betty

As I worked around the room, I saw Betty (name changed for confidentially) and asked her if I could sit down and talk with her. She shared with me where she lived and what brought her to the shelter. I listened as she talked about flying for the first time in her life in a helicopter…that would be the military one that rescued her and her husband as the waters rose. Before you get too fired up about why people do not evacuate…it is more complicated than you think…I will leave that blog to Scientific American.

As if this harrowing experience was not enough, this was the third flood Betty and her husband have endured in their life together. Twice they have rebuilt their home in Eastern, NC and she feared it was about to happen again.

During our time together, Betty’s husband George (name changed for confidentiality) came and sat down beside her.  It was evident by their interaction that there was a deep love and bond between them. This was a couple that had been through a lot together, and I had just scratched the surface.

I asked Betty how they were able to find the strength to rebuild time and time again. I told her I felt like I would just give up. She said,  “You can’t give up, you have to press on.” She told me that sometimes she feels like giving up and she says, “God , Why me?” and God answers her, “Why not you?”

Just WOW…as I was attempting to processing how I could have that kind of attitude about life, that’s when she dropped the next bomb in my lap. As if the loss of her home multiple times was not enough to send someone into a lifetime of depression, Betty and George had just lost their daughter less than two months before Hurricane Florence. Their daughter had a chronic illness that had led to paralysis and finally it took her life.

It Is Well With My Soul

That’s when I realized the tables were turning and yet again, the counselor was becoming the counselee. I had walked into this space with a brain full of diagnostic skills, therapy tools, and public health knowledge but nothing could trump what Betty and George already knew…adversity creates resiliency. 

The truth is this lady was probably more psychologically ready to handle this level of event than myself or most people I know. As I continued to listen to her reminisce about her daughter and what she missed an old Hymn came to mind. I told Betty that her attitude and spirit reminded me of the hymn “It is Well with My soul” and asked her if she knew the story about the person who wrote the hymn.

We discussed how Horatio Spafford ( full disclosure at the time neither of us could recall his name) wrote this particular hymn after losing his four daughters at sea, only his wife survived. After the accident at sea, he received a telegram that said… “Saved alone…” It is reported that he wrote the words to the beloved  hymn as the ship he was on to reunite with his wife passed over the spot where his daughters died. HAVE MERCY, I can’t even imagine the power of the human spirit in that moment.

Whatever My Lot

Betty said, “People think I am crazy because I tell them I hear God talking to me, but I do.” After her daughter died she said the Lord told her to be grateful for the years that she had her daughter and the blessing of the four children she still had. Of course she misses her and she grieves but what an incredible perspective.

Thankfully for my family and many others, Florence was just an interruption in our lives. We lost some days of work and school to prepare and shelter. After the storm, some of us endured days without power and probably just a little bit too much family togetherness. As frustrating and overwhelming as all of this was, they were just that… interruptions. Just like that, many of us are back to zipping around town, our kids are in school or will return soon and we are living at the mercy of that busy calendar again.

But for so many of our fellow North Carolinians, like Betty, Florence was not just an interruption of their lives, it is complete devastation. For some families, they suffered the ultimate loss, the loss of life.  Not only have many lost their homes and all their possessions in the historical flood waters, but they have lost their churches, fire departments, sources of income and schools. Their entire community is in cardiac arrest. Imagine if you were in the midst of the biggest crisis in your life and your entire support system was unavailable. That is exactly what has happened to these folks. Life is completely suspended in time.

Eastern NC Will Rise

I love this state and the people that make up these rural communities are the backbone of our country. They grow amazing produce, run small businesses and take care of their neighbors. These communities may have “lost” their infrastructure and buildings, but they have not lost their sense of community. No matter how high the water rises, they will rise higher.

In the days and months to come, Betty and her family. along with so many more will begin to rebuild their lives. Most people do not realize that with federal and state disaster programs it will take years for people to receive funding. In addition, these funds are not enough to make people whole again.

I know that many people are ready and willing to help. They just don’t know where to start. I encourage you to not only donate financially but consider joining in with your neighbors to rebuild communities. It will not only help transform these communities but it will transform your life as well. Take a minute to look at the opportunities to volunteer with organizations such as UMCOR, NC Baptist Men, Samaritan’s Purse and NCVOAD . You can donate from a single day to months of service.

In the blur of her stay at the shelter, I know that Betty will probably never remember me, but I will never forget her and what she taught me about resiliency. Yes Betty, I do believe that God speaks to you, because I know I heard him loud and clear through you. Thank you, Betty, and may God Bless you as you continue to rise.

As always, until next time may you be well, may you be loved, and may you know true peace.

Read more about Melissa C. Harrell and her work. Like Resiliency Counseling and Consulting, PLLC

The purpose of this blog is to offer educational information related to mental wellness. Resiliency Counseling & Consulting, PLLC and Melissa Harrell do not offer diagnosis or treatment through this medium. If you feel that you or a family member needs to access mental health services, first contact your primary care physician for assessment and direction in your area. If you need immediate help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.