Our hearts go out to the many people affected by fires in the northwest and Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in the past two weeks. More and more it seems people are being affected by these major events. As people go into the arduous task of cleaning up their homes and/or business, we can forget about our emotional needs. We wanted to offer what support we can to the many polyamorous folks, and people in general, who may be dealing with the aftermath and recovery. I know many in our community have dealt with similar disasters in recent years. For those who haven’t been directly affected, you probably know someone who has and with climate change we all run the risk of being in the middle of one of these events. It is my personal experiences in three disasters, from a small but intense forest fire in April 2011 to a major flood in 2013, that inspired me to outreach and share some of my personal insights in disaster recovery.
This may sound funny but it wasn’t until the last event, the flood, that I was able to really accept and even ask for help. I think for many in our culture and our community, we don’t want to feel dependent or get a “hand out.” Remember the services offered from FEMA and other government assistance comes from your tax dollars. FEMA can’t actually do much but it can help with housing if your home isn’t habitable. The money may not go far but it can be a big help. Also, most communities have a hotline of some kind where you can find assistance from volunteers.
During the flood, we lost our pasture fences and had no place for our livestock. Fences are not covered by flood insurance and we had tons of downed trees and other debris in the way. With the help of an outreach program we were able to organize a group of 20 volunteers who helped clear some of the debris and build a fence across the middle of the pasture so we had somewhere for the animals. We provided the materials, but the labor was a godsend for us. In Houston, a portion of my mother’s roof caved in from Harvey. She is older and lives alone, so volunteers helped pull the drywall and wet insulation out so she could dry out a bit.
Remember many people want to help, they feel good about it, and they are there to help people. The water came close but my house itself had little damage in our flood (a huge surprise to me and my neighbors), which was one reason it was hard for me to accept help. I had an enormous amount of damage to trees, fences, driveways, the creek, and drainage issues, but so many neighbors lost everything that I felt guilty accepting help. I knew how lucky we were. Just the same, we really needed the help and it was actually FEMA that helped us realize we needed to accept the help offered.
Disasters can take a huge toll emotionally and physically, and we need to take care of ourselves. Pay attention to your emotional needs and ask for support from those close to you. Major crisis can bring people closer or tear relationships apart. Admitting you’re feeling shaken and need a hug or to just be held can be healing for everyone; you might be surprised how much the people around you need that as well and may not even realize it. Allow yourself to cry, if that is what you feel. In the days and weeks after the flood I was in good spirits, just thankful my family and home were intact. It took months for the reality of what had happened to sink in and before any tears flowed. Later on, a year after the flood, I would still cry when I walked around our property or when I saw entire towns wiped out, parks gone that will never be rebuilt, or my favorite tree knocked down to rebuild the road. It is emotional, yes it’s just stuff, but it is also our lives.
Keep in mind that everyone has a different process. One family member may need to talk about the wind, flood, or other experiences over and over, and another might just need to not think about it. Try not to judge or hold people or yourself to the same standard. During Harvey I felt overwhelmed by emotions of what people, including my parents and siblings in Texas, were going through. I remember the waiting, sleeping in my car in my neighbor’s driveway with my kids and pets because our house was threatened by raging flood waters and our road was washed away. We could at least get to higher ground, but I know in Houston and Florida this was not possible. So whether your house was spared or not, you have been through a scary ordeal; be kind to yourself and others. Understand as the challenges mount, nerves can fray and people can lash out. Stress is different for everyone and it can help to realize that irritability and impatience can set in. One person might have found the down time during the storm relaxing while another was completely terrified.
Empathy & Understanding
One thing I found very challenging (and very annoying) was the way in which people not affected seemed to just go on as usual. In Colorado, only some folks were affected by the fires and floods, and many just don’t get what people may be dealing with. People are not always good at dealing with friends or family in crisis and they want to cheer you up. I can’t tell you how many times I heard “well at least your house didn’t burn/flood.” To me that felt like I wasn’t allowed to feel upset because it wasn’t that bad. My house not burning or flooding was great and I am very thankful, however that doesn’t erase the trauma. It doesn’t erase the 4am evacuation order in 2011 when we loaded our car with essentials and raced to load horses and livestock by firelight from a forest fire on the ridge a mile from our home. It doesn’t erase the three weeks in 2012 when we waited for information on whether our home had burned when we were again evacuated. And it doesn’t lighten the fear we felt when we were ordered to evacuate for a flood with no road to get out on and had to spend a terrifying night in our cars with our kids wondering if we would have a home in the morning. Please don’t minimize your or another’s emotional challenges from a disaster just because you or they didn’t lose everything or maybe even anything. One night or weeks of not knowing if your home, your family, or even you are going to be ok is scary and can be traumatizing.
Helping others can help in healing. If your home/family made it through unscathed, volunteering can be a great way to help heal your own and others trauma. It can give us an outlet to talk to people who understand and to know we’re not alone. Helping someone in need can also give us a place to focus energy and attention and not dwell on our own ordeal too much. Giving of ourselves and helping people can just feel really good. I remember one amazing woman who baked cookies for FEMA workers assessing damage on the Big Thompson River, and when the crew asked about how her home was, she replied that it was somewhere down stream. They were floored she was out there supporting them when she had lost everything. She said she just appreciated all their hard work and wanted to give what she could.
There are many ways to help; form a group to help people with clean up, join one of the many volunteer organizations, or just invite a neighbor who lives alone for a meal. Helping others brings a sense of community and lets us know we’re not alone.
One challenge that I found hard to deal with was the insurance company. I had to fight for them to cover our food losses with the power outage and evacuation expenses. Check your policy; many (not all) cover mandatory evacuation expenses. Know what is covered, as the insurance companies won’t volunteer this information no matter how nice they may seem. I was told the food in our freezer and fridge weren’t covered when the power was out for weeks during the fire but I had read my policy and they were. Only for $500/unit which didn’t cover it all, but it helped. One neighbor was told by their insurance company they had to live in their house while it was repaired, but half the house had burned and it was structurally unsound. They managed to get the county to intervene and the insurance covered temporary housing while the house was rebuilt. Insurance will be hit hard, so know your rights. Often recovery centers will have knowledgeable people who can give legal advice; at least they did here for us.
For many, the financial issues can pile up. Costs for evacuation such as hotels, food, animals, and clothing if you weren’t able to pack a bag. Every situation is different. In our second fire evacuation our insurance paid two weeks out of three. In the flood we had help from FEMA for housing, though it only covered about half of the expense. We were blessed to receive financial help from a family friend. We had to rent a car since our cars were inaccessible and insurance would only cover the rental if our cars were damaged.
Clean up can get expensive for things not covered by insurance or if you don’t have insurance. Repairs to landscape, drainage, or other property can add up fast. In the fire when the evacuation was lifted the house was not habitable after three weeks of being empty. The electricity had been cut, mice had moved in and wreaked havoc in the pantry, food was rotted in the two fridges and the freezer, and everything smelled of smoke, rodents, and rotted food. All of these little things can add up to big expenses for people. We were lucky in the High Park fire to have my partner and metamour visit. They were amazing, supportive, helped with the clean-up, and they really made it easier for us to put our home back together after the fire.
After three years in a row of disasters we ended up in debt on credit cards that we are still working to pay off. This is one reason I wish we had accepted and/or asked for more help. Keep in mind we are one of the lucky ones. I’ll admit there are times I wonder if we’d have been better off financially if our house had been destroyed. These thoughts are normal when dealing with all this. Manage your expectations and be sure to consider your finances. Many people asked why we didn’t move with all that happened. The truth is we couldn’t; property values plummeted and with the disaster loans we ended up owing more than the house was worth. In addition no one would underwrite a mortgage in our area. The good news is that has all changed now, but as things have grown back I realize we still love where we live. And honestly, I don’t know anywhere that is safe from climate change and disasters.
With these things in mind I recommend both asking for help and accepting help from people and taking advantage of programs when possible. The recovery center here had food, clothing, and furniture available for those who qualified, and we did. It wasn’t much, but we received a visa card for groceries, and were able to get some clothing and food that helped supplement our groceries. Make a list of what you need, what are the needed repairs, prioritize what’s critical, and determine what can wait if needed. Maybe you don’t feel like you need to supplement your groceries, but saving that money may help to pay for things you do. Time will heal the land, the real estate market, and the money issues, but it can take years.
The Long Haul
Recovery can take weeks or months, but most often takes years, and some things will never be the same. When our homes and communities get hit by disaster, it can be a long road to feeling normal again. For me it was a few years. With three disasters thirteen months apart I have to admit that in October/November 2014, I was bracing myself for the next onslaught. It wasn’t rational, nor is the uneasy feeling I get when we get big rain storms or really dry fire conditions. I have to remind myself we have bridges now instead of clogged culverts and there really isn’t much left to burn around here. I remember someone sharing her disaster story of losing her home to fire at an evacuation meeting during one of the fires. She shared about how she now measured things in before and after the fire. I find myself measuring things in before the fire or after the flood. I have had to accept that part of the damage will never be repaired. Parks I loved by the Big Thompson or in Left Hand canyon may never return. Trees tangled with debris on the lower part of our property will likely never be cleared away as we lack the funds/time and access to do much. Things are different and that’s ok.
Some parts of recovery can take a while to complete or even start; it was over a year after the flood before we were able to clean up the majority of the debris on much of our property. We had to get a large SBA equity loan since flood insurance only covers the house itself. The paper work took months and the case worker assigned was helping many people, so we had to be patient. One neighbor just rebuilt their home they lost in 2013 this past summer as it took years to get both county approvals and the money together. If you can’t get a loan and don’t have insurance, you may be eligible for grants. Here they set up a recovery center with FEMA and SBA staff to help us through the process for long term disaster relief.
After all this work, patience and clean-up, it can feel like a bit of a letdown. We had to rebuild our drainage ditches, driveways, and the banks of the creek to prevent flooding from every rain storm. It can feel frustrating to spend thousands of dollars and many hours of labor on cleaning up trash and buying dirt and still it is not close to what we lost.
As I write this I realize this could seem like a big whine fest, but the reality is a major disaster can change your life in bad and good ways. Through all this I did my best to keep a positive attitude. I was grateful my family survived. I was glad we only lost a few animals through all this. I got the chance to know my neighbors and see people from diverse backgrounds come together to help each other. I witnessed neighbors beg volunteer firefighters not to risk their lives in saving their home during the High Park Fire; they could rebuild, it was just a house. I heard how the volunteer firefighters saved the local 100 year old school and community center from the fire while their own house burned down. The school they felt was more important because it was a gathering place for the community. I cried when the Sheriffs Posse rescued the chickens we had to leave behind when we evacuated for the High Park fire. I got to help out with animals traumatized by fire. I had friends show up and help us save animals, give us money, and be supportive. I have a better understanding of the need to be a community and to help one another, not just in Colorado but around the world.
Right after the flood I decided to produce a one day polyamory event in Houston because I needed a project since winter was setting in and we couldn’t do much about the clean-up and repairs. Many people felt I was nuts in taking this on. I knew I needed something positive to focus on. Going to Houston seemed a good fit as I had wanted to do something there for years and I could see family at the same time, which I needed. I could channel the frustration and uneasy feelings into a positive project and it helped in healing some of the trauma.
Seeking Professional Help
One thing that helped us was going to crisis counseling. We first attempted this after the fire in 2012. Unfortunately, the therapist was not very good. She was distracted by us being polyamorous, didn’t know a thing about the dynamics, and didn’t know how to help a family that had good communication skills and had worked on issues prior to the crisis. We did find someone good after the flood and it has been helpful. We see her when we feel we need to. Yes, we are still dealing with the PTSD from all this, but we try to be conscious of the issues and aware of how things can trigger us. Having a good therapist is a big help. For people in polyamorous or other alternative relationships, it helps if the therapist is poly aware and friendly.
I hope this helps both people dealing with their own recovery and people who may have a loved one facing all of this. I know that so many people are faced with a long road to recovery. You can get through this with time, patience, love, and being open to help and support in many forms. And please don’t hesitate to ask for help; it may not always be available, but if you don’t ask you don’t know.
We Are Here for You!
For those who are dealing with disaster Loving More is organizing counselors to support you. If you find yourself in need of crisis counseling, we have a list of counselors who are available to support you. Please contact Robyn@lovemore.com for details on available help or if you are a counselor willing to donate sessions to victims of the recent disasters.