When is the disaster over?

University of Illinois Social Work, Professor Tara Leytham Powell has devoted her research to helping people recover from the emotional stress of disasters, both natural and man-made.

The onslaught of disasters over the past two weeks has been overwhelming even for a casual observer.

Imagine what it must be like for those living it — the victims who’ve lost houses, belongings, loved ones. The children who lived through the terror of howling winds or quaking buildings, who’ve seen their rooms flooded, their schools destroyed, a pet or a beloved toy lost.

The recovery after a major hurricane or earthquake isn’t just physical. The mental toll can sometimes be as bad, or worse, and last much longer.

That’s where Tara Leytham Powell comes in. The University of Illinois social work professor has devoted her research to helping people recover from the emotional stress of disasters, both natural and man-made.

She helped Save the Children develop a program called “Journey of Hope,” which has been used to help victims of disasters and crises across the U.S. and around the world, from Syrian refugees in Spain to earthquake survivors in New Zealand.

Powell is flying to Houston on Wednesday with a relief group called AmeriCares to help train mental health professionals and others who are working with those uprooted by Hurricane Harvey. She hopes to go back later to work directly with care providers and children affected, in between her UI duties.

Right now, she said, people in Houston are likely on “autopilot,” trying to reclaim their lives. They may be short-tempered, “hyperaroused” and generally nervous, all common short-term stress symptoms, she said. Once they get into stable housing and school resumes, some sense of normalcy will return.

But that’s when sustained chronic stress can kick in, especially if they’ve been displaced to a new area with different schools or have to deal with insurance agents as they try to rebuild, she said. That stress can last a year or two, or even longer, she said.

“Disasters create chaos,” she said.

Powell was a graduate student at Tulane University in 2006, when Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans. A stint in the Peace Corps in Mali, where she saw the impact of wars in neighboring West African countries, had persuaded her to pursue a master’s degree in complex emergencies in public health, focusing on disasters and conflict.

But midway through her campus was inundated by Katrina, and like many others she was forced to leave New Orleans. When she came back she started a social work internship and ended up getting a job as a social worker.

Funding agencies and others kept asking, “When is the disaster over?” But she soon realized it wasn’t that simple.

For those with few resources to begin with, disasters can make food scarce and decent housing difficult to find, or push them completely into poverty, she said.

“It’s not just the disaster itself, it’s all these other things that they’re experiencing,” she said. “There weren’t very good mental health systems set up to deal with people dealing with long-term issues from disasters. I realized long-term recovery takes a very long time.”

Frustrated, she decided to return to school for her Ph.D. and do research to illustrate the need, what programs can help, and “what long-term recovery looks like.”

Powell started working with Save The Children right after Katrina, from 2006 to 2009. Then she and several colleagues developed Journey of Hope to help kids recover from the stress and chaos following a disaster. It’s become one of Save The Children’s signature programs.

Powell has since developed similar programs for parents, caregivers and teachers, and another more intensive program called “A Family Journey of Hope.” The idea is to help the adults, who are also stressed, and teach them how to understand kids’ emotional reactions to disasters. They learn how to recognize the signs of stress, how kids respond, and what they can do to help.

Often, the counselors and teachers are struggling with their own losses after a disaster but are too busy helping others to ask for help, she said. There’s a direct correlation between how well parents and schools recover from a disaster and how children are able to rebound, she said.

The reactions to stress aren’t that different from what any of us might go through after a trauma, be it a car accident, health crisis or the sudden death of a loved one — just on a more massive scale.

Younger children might be more clingy or regress to behaviors from their toddler days — sucking their thumb or sleeping with their parents again. In New Zealand, which was hit by two earthquakes in 2011, one at night, some kids slept with their parents for months, she said.

Or they may withdraw, or express their emotions through play or drawing.

Older children and teens may act out more, get into fights at school or exhibit risky behavior like using drugs or alcohol.

Some of that is normal in the short-term, but if it persists kids may need extra help, she said.

Counselors don’t make them talk about the event but rather their own stress. They tell kids it’s OK to feel anger or anxiety, but then try to help them identify the specific source, control their emotions and give them ways to cope. If they’re scared, they talk about people or places or things that make them feel safe.

They also talk about bullying, because most of the kids Powell worked with post-Katrina dealt with bullying. They had been uprooted and thrown into other overcrowded schools, many in high poverty areas, and students developed “little groups and gangs,” she said.

Powell thinks we have learned a lot since Katrina about how to help people cope after a disaster.

And despite all the trauma and chaos, she is heartened by the images of neighbors helping neighbors — the dramatic boat rescues, the clean-up projects, the volunteers patiently lining up to help.

“In every place I’ve been, they’ve there for each other — every place in the world, actually. Basic human empathy, I think it exists. People are at their core, for the most part, pretty good.”


09/12/2017 | Julie Wurth, staff writer, News-Gazette
(217)351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth