Coping with the Trauma of a Natural Disaster

The recent wildfire in Black Forest has been devastating.  The timing of the fire coming close to the anniversary of the Waldo Canyon fire created unique coping challenges across the community.  As the Director of the CU Trauma, Health, & Hazards Center I wanted to provide some thoughts about how this event provides unique challenges for all of us living in the Pikes Peak region.

Disaster recovery has phases including an immediate survival mode, followed by an early honeymoon recovery period, also called the altruistic or utopian phase.  During this time communities come together, neighbors reach out to one another, and even strangers offer a helping hand.  The third phase is a very difficult period where those affected must face the realities of the long road to recovery.  Depending upon the amount of exposure (a damaged home versus complete loss), the challenges are significant where very daunting tasks are required for an extended period of time.  The Black Forest fire survivors are moving into this challenging phase of recovery over the next few months.  The last phase is a sense of more complete recovery as re-building becomes more evident. For the Waldo Canyon fire survivors, the re-building phase is fully engaged and the community has been moving forward toward the “putting this behind us” perspective.

Many have even reached out to the Black Forest affected community to provide perspective and support.  Yet for some survivors of the Waldo Canyon disaster the re-building challenges are still evident.  The Black Forest fire has added new complications for this process reinforcing the vulnerability feelings related to this type of experience.  Some survivors from the Waldo Canyon fire may even have strong reactions that make them feel like they are moving backwards with intense memories of last year’s fire.  Television and newspaper coverage can trigger intense emotions.  These reactions are all very normal, especially given the timing of this new disaster.  If the emotional cloud seems to stick around for more than a month it might help to talk to a professional counselor in order to find new ways to move ahead.

The Waldo Canyon fire provides unique challenges for the recent survivors of the Black Forest fire.  These individuals, although not directly hit by last year’s event (although there are a few who have been affected by both), were still part of the community that overall has been coping with last year’s tragedy.  This will have a couple of implications for coping with this most recent disaster.  First, as we have seen in the response from first responders, lessons learned from the Waldo Canyon experience may help make this event a little bit easier to manage.  Disaster relief seems to be more efficient and the “we know how to do this” factor will help everyone.  However, the community also has some pre-existing vulnerability due to last year’s fire.  Thus, emotional reactions may be enhanced due to this.

The typical reactions to the devastation from this fire will include a wide range from deep sadness, high levels of intrusive thoughts relative to what people experienced during the evacuation, grief, anger, resentment, and numbness.  Believe it or not, people will also report having some very intense positive emotions usually related to feeling closer to neighbors or the community, deep connections to their families, etc.  All of these are normal reactions to this type of event.  If people find themselves really struggling with depressed emotions, they cannot sleep, they find themselves crying a lot, have intrusive memories that are getting worse over the next month, it might be a sign that some professional help would be very useful.

The important thing to remember is that the community is probably the most experienced and resilient population in the United States now in how to manage recovery from severe wildfires (with the possible exception of those in Southern California where these types of severe fires seem to occur on an annual basis).  As we move forward remember to reach out to one another and help to foster recovery together in the months ahead, one step at a time.

Courtesy of Dr. Chip Benight
Professor of Psychology and Director of the CU Trauma, Health and Hazards Center, University of Colorado Colorado Springs