For Hurricane Dorian Survivors, Emotional Distress Lingers
“I’m okay…” says Joe Tate, his statement trailing off like a question. “Well, my body’s strong,” he clarifies. “But my head and my heart…”
Those two things are more complicated. But they’re the things that hurt the most.
We encounter Joe in McLeans Town, a small and tightly knit community that our International Medical Corps emergency response team is assessing as it makes its way up the coast of Grand Bahama island following Hurricane Dorian
The Category 5 storm that slammed into the northwest Bahamas on September 1—lingering over the islands, with seeming vengeance, for more than 36 hours—destroyed Joe’s home, as well as the community his family has lived in for generations. We find him carefully sorting through the remnants of his life, trying to make sense of the brokenness.
International Medical Corps volunteer doctors check him out, declare him to be in good health and give him a tetanus shot to protect him as he clears nails and glass from the debris. But as the doctors move on in search of those with physical conditions to treat, I linger with Joe. As it turns out, he needs someone to talk to.
I learn he stayed behind during the vicious storm, somehow surviving waves of more than 20 feet, winds topping 185 miles per hour and a storm with the focused fury of a tornado. He points to a corner of his decimated home, where two battered chairs lean wearily.
“My cousin and his three children were sitting right there,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. “They got washed away.” He shakes his head again and smiles sadly at me, shrugging before returning to the task at hand: picking up the pieces.
Joe is far from alone among Grand Bahama island residents struggling with invisible wounds and harrowing tales of survival. Many had chosen to ride out the storm in the family property, as they had done before, not knowing this hurricane was different—a meteorological monster.
Across the island, we find the kind of shock that Joe has expressed, emanating from those who stagger out from apocalyptic landscapes. Some climbed tall trees to survive the storm. Some clung to rafters in attics. Some struggled to stay afloat for hours on end, going for days without water, food or sleep. They lost their homes and, in some cases, friends and family. They faced death head-on—and came out alive. Now, they’re left with wounds no one can see.
“Many individuals lost loved ones, saw their homes wash away and experienced the intense fear of watching waters rise around them and sensing that their options for escape were disappearing,” says Mia Concordia, a clinical social worker who joined International Medical Corps’ emergency response team in Grand Bahama. “The loss affected the entire community, as even those who didn’t experience personal losses are grieving the impact to their neighbours, friends, colleagues and hometowns.”
Grand Bahama island healthcare officials say they are preparing for what they anticipate will be a spike in needs for mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) once the immediacy of the disaster and the experience—and, for many, the miracle—of their own personal survival begin to fade. As Dr. Stacie Bevans, manager of community health programs for Grand Bahama’s Public Hospitals Authority (PHA), explains, “It’s an adrenalin rush now, but after a month reality begins to set in, and people begin to get angry and depressed.”
As a first responder for more than 35 years, International Medical Corps provides urgent medical relief to those on the front lines of disaster, disease and conflict. At the same time, we’ve always taken a holistic approach to healthcare, recognizing that grief and the struggle through adversity can be just as devastating to one’s well-being as any bodily wound. The innovative mental health services we provide to those living through complex humanitarian disasters helps to generate emotional resilience, mutual support and facilitate the rebuilding of lives, families and communities.
International Medical Corps currently has two mental health and psychosocial support specialists on Grand Bahama island to support local mental health efforts aimed at helping survivors cope with their many losses. We are working with Rand Memorial Hospital in Freeport and the PHA to support community-based mental health efforts and—working from the clinic we set up in High Rock—provide MHPSS services and facilitate referrals where needed. We are also supporting the local mental health system by raising awareness of mental health needs and training health providers in psychological first aid.
International Medical Corps MHPSS Coordinator Eoin Ryan, who has met with several survivors struggling to cope with the effects of the hurricane, says that the initial task is to conduct preliminary evaluations to determine whether they have support—such as family, neighbours and friends who can help—as well as basic needs, such as food, water and shelter. If the person displays signs of acute distress or mental disorder, International Medical Corps volunteers or staff refer them to mental health services provided by hospital or government authorities.
This World Mental Health Day, we honour the survivors of Hurricane Dorian, and all those persevering across the globe. This is a day not only to destigmatize and provide education about mental health; it’s also a day to acknowledge that we all carry heartache and pain that can’t be cured with a pill or a bandage. As the residents of the Bahamas work to rebuild, and as we provide services to women, men and children around the world, International Medical Corps remains committed to the kind of inner healing that leads to hope, revival and long-term resilience.
Among the first on the ground following Hurricane Dorian, working closely with the Bahamian Ministry of Health and the Pan American Health Organization, International Medical Corps has so far deployed 76 healthcare professionals and supporting staff to provide assistance to survivors.