How trauma affects tornado victims

Published 2:58 pm Saturday, June 26, 2010

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series about dealing with the trauma of disaster. The Tribune interviewed Rose Olmsted, coordinator of the Freeborn County Crisis Response Team, who has been trained under the National Organization of Victim Assistance model. The Crisis Response Team has been assisting people affected by the June 17 tornadoes.

During her first week out in the aftermath of the June 17 tornadoes, Freeborn County Crisis Response Team Coordinator Rose Olmsted said she has seen people who were shocked, disoriented and immobilized.

“We’ve got people walking around star-gazed who are just in shock over what’s happened, not sure what to do next,” Olmsted said.

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“One of the things I heard was, ‘I can’t think beyond the next hour.’”

She said when disaster strikes, it throws people out of their normal range of equilibrium. The trauma that comes from it may throw people so far out of their range that it is difficult to restore a sense of balance in life.

But what she wants people who have been affected by the June 17 tornadoes to know is that these are normal responses to disaster — and there is a way to overcome them.

Olmsted said any trauma is accompanied by a multitude of losses.

These losses could include a loss of control over one’s life, a loss of faith for some, a loss of property or loved ones, a loss of a sense of immortality and for others a loss of future. Because of these losses, grief is generated.

Other physical responses to trauma include shock, numbness, a heightened physical arousal (in this case to future severe weather), and eventually exhaustion.

Emotional responses include anger, outrage, fear and terror — even confusion and frustration.

Olmsted said she keeps hearing stories of people clinging to things or holding onto their children. The fear and terror from those experiences, and others, leave a footprint of disaster that can be brought up at any time based on tornado warnings or inclement weather.

She said there are also feelings of guilt or self blame for some, or shame for others. People start comparing themselves to other people. There’s even survivor guilt of “Why not me, why them?”

After trauma there’s also sometimes a regression, where people will regress to an earlier stage in their life when it was easier, she said. Some feel week and others wish their parents were around to take care of them.

Yet, others may not be able to make decisions.

“The good news is there is recovery,” Olmsted said. “We want people to know it is there.”

While recovery depends on factors including the severity of the reaction, the ability to understand what happened, the stability of the victim and whether the person has a supportive environment, the main goal of recovery is gaining control over life again.

“We want people to do whatever they need to do to start feeling control again,” she said. That can be done through even small decisions.

She said people affected by the trauma of disaster need to be able to share their stories and hear other people’s stories.

“It’s a part of the healing process,” Olmsted noted.

People also need to understand what happened, re-define their values, re-establish trust and re-establish a future and meaning to life.

She credited neighbors in Freeborn County who have already shown great support for the people who have been affected by the tornadoes and severe weather of June 17.

She said she encourages people reading this article to share it with people who are without televisions, radios and newspapers.

Olmsted said at some point the Freeborn County Crisis Response team will offer some group crisis interventions; however, if someone has any specific referrals they can contact 507-444-1030.

People can also call Olmsted at 507-402-2467.

The Freeborn County Crisis Response Team, within the Department of Human Services, is a group of volunteers who are trained to go out into the community to be supportive to groups of people who have been traumatized by disaster. Disaster could be natural or human-made, including tornadoes, floods, school shootings, sudden traumatic death or groups affected by crime.

The crisis response team is available to provide a listening ear to people traumatized by disaster, give presentations on trauma and offer group crisis interventions.

It is based on the model established by the National Organization of Victim Assistance. There are about 50 trained volunteers.

In Monday’s Tribune: A look at helping children deal with the trauma of disaster.