‘Nothing’s left’: Hurricane Ian leaves emotional toll behind

Oct 9, 2022, 9:03 AM | Updated: Oct 10, 2022, 3:50 am
Joe Kuczko puts up a tarp next to his mobile home, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022, in Pine Island, Fla.,  i...

Joe Kuczko puts up a tarp next to his mobile home, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022, in Pine Island, Fla., in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

              Cindy Bickford looks over her home damaged in Hurricane Ian, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022, in Pine Island, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
            
              Joe Kuczko puts up a tarp next to his mobile home, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022, in Pine Island, Fla.,  in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
            
              Alice Pujols goes through someone else's discarded items for clothes and shoes for her family Monday, Oct. 3, 2022, in Fort Myers, Fla. Pujols's home was completely destroyed after her home flooded due to rising waters caused by Hurricane Ian. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — With her home gone and all her belongings trashed by Hurricane Ian, Alice Pujols wept as she picked through soggy clothes, toys and overturned furniture piled head-high outside a stranger’s house, looking to salvage something — anything — for her four children and herself.

“I’m trying to make it to the next day,” she said. “That’s all I can do. It’s really depressing. It really is.”

For those who lost everything to a natural disaster and even those spared, the anguish can be crushing to return home to find so much gone. Grief can run the gamut from frequent tears to utter despair. Two men in their 70s even took their own lives after viewing their losses, said the medical examiner in Lee County, where Ian first made landfall in southwestern Florida.

The emotional toll in the days, weeks and months after a hurricane, flood or wildfire can be crippling. More pressing needs for food, shelter and clothing often take priority to seeking counseling, which is in short supply even in good times.

“When someone’s in a state of trauma that so many are in, they don’t know where to begin,” said Beth Hatch, CEO of the Collier County, Florida, branch of the National Alliance of Mental Illness. “They need that hand-holding and they need to know that there’s so many people here to help them.”

Hurricane Ian hammered Florida with such ferocity that it wiped out whole neighborhoods, tossed boats onto highways, swept away beaches and swamped homes in roof-deep waters.

With sustained winds of 150 mph (240 kph), it was one of the strongest hurricanes to ever hit southwest Florida. It later cut a watery and wind-battered swath across the Florida peninsula before turning out to sea to regain strength and pummel South Carolina.

It killed more than 100 people, the majority of victims in Florida, making it the third-deadliest storm to hit the U.S. mainland this century. Even a week after it passed through, officials warned that more victims could yet be found as they continued to inspect the damage. The storm knocked out power to 2.6 million and caused billions of dollars in damage.

Research has shown that between a third and half of those who survive a disaster develop some type of mental distress, said Jennifer Horney, an epidemiology professor at the University of Delaware who studies natural disaster impacts on public health.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety rise along with substance abuse. Those with existing mental disorders are at greater risk of having those conditions exacerbated by the trauma.

A variety of help is available as additional resources are sent to the area.

The state of Florida was setting up support centers and the federal government has a 24-hour disaster distress helpline to provide counseling and crisis support. Hatch’s organization was going to some homes in hard-hit areas to check on clients with mental illness.

The vast majority of people, though, were still assessing damage, trying to retrieve and dry out possessions worth keeping and drag what couldn’t be saved to growing trash heaps by the side of the road.

On Pine Island, just off the Florida mainland where Ian first struck, an emotional Alan Bickford said he was trying to take a longer view because what lay before him was bleak: the floors of his home were coated in stinky muck and his yard was littered with framed photos, furniture and other items he’d hauled outside.

“It’s like a death of a loved one. The pain just comes and goes,” he said. “There’s times when there are these little glimmers or slivers of hope. And then everything falls apart.”

Riding out a deadly storm amid screaming winds, pounding waves and rising waters, or escaping as danger closes in is terrifying and traumatic. Living out of a duffel bag or suitcase in an evacuation center is disruptive, stressful and depressing. Returning to a flood-ravaged home that needs to be gutted to prevent mold from taking hold or, worse, reduced to splinters and scrap metal and scattered like confetti is heartbreaking.

Mao Lin walked an hour Thursday to reach the plot of land where she had lived on Fort Myers Beach, which looked like a blast zone. She was distressed to find it gone.

“The whole street — nothing’s left,” she said. “We don’t have a home. We don’t have a car. We don’t have anything. We have nothing left.”

In recent days, the number of calls have doubled at Hatch’s organization as people recognize they cannot rebuild their lives — and overcome trauma — alone.

“The needs are going to change over time,” Hatch said. “Some people have lost everything, maybe the walls of their home may be still standing, but they’re uninhabitable.”

Cleaning up the mess of a damaged home or finding a new one in the wake of a catastrophe gives way to the longer term challenges of navigating the maze of bureaucracy for financial assistance, securing permits for rebuilding or fighting insurance companies over reimbursements.

Horney studied suicide rates in counties that experienced a disaster between 2003-2015. She and her colleagues found suicides increased 23% when comparing the three-year period preceding a disaster to the three years after an event, according to the study published in The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention.

She said the Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 suicides of men in their 70s was not typical so soon after a catastrophic event.

“It’s not usually an immediate, post-disaster thing,” Horney said. “It’s really these longer-term mental health problems that have either been exacerbated by or caused by the disaster that then over time tend to lead to more severe outcomes like suicide.”

In the aftermath of a disaster, communities pull together to recover and rebuild. Rescuers, relief workers and nonprofit organizations provide food, funding and other help, including counseling. But attention eventually fades and the money dries up. Emergency funds for mental health sometimes expire in as soon as two months and last no longer than a year.

With disasters becoming more frequent and more severe due to climate change, there could be a cumulative effect on mental health, Horney said. She said her study calls for more funding to fix the damage that is felt but can’t be seen.

Most of the emotional impacts of a disaster are short-lived but they could be worsened if followed by another cataclysmic event.

“If it was usual that symptoms would resolve in six months to a year, but then there’s another hurricane or another wildfire, then you’re in this cycle of intensifying mental health impacts,” Horney said. “The research is definitely clear that the more disasters you’re exposed to, the stronger the impacts on mental health.”

Joe Kuczko hunkered down with his parents as their Pine Island mobile home was battered by the storm. Kuczko got a gash in his foot that he stitched himself after a piece of the roof blew off.

Pieces of mangled metal lay on the ground Thursday along with containers full of possessions and clothes hung to dry as Kuczko, shirtless and with a sunburn on his back, strung up a tarp to keep the rain out of what remained of the home.

“I lost the first 30 years of my life,” he said. “Every time I hear the wind blow and a piece of aluminum shift, it’s like PTSD.”

___

Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press journalist Robert Bumsted contributed to this story from Pine Island, Florida.

___

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available for those in distress by dialing 988 or 1-800-273-8255.

___

For more coverage of Hurricane Ian, go to: https://apnews.com/hub/hurricanes

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

FILE - Capital murder defendant and former U.S. Border Patrol Juan David Ortiz looks around the cou...
Associated Press

Jurors hear ex-Border Patrol agent’s confession in killings

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Jurors in the capital murder trial of a former U.S. Border Patrol agent have heard a taped interview in which he confesses to the 2018 killings of four sex workers in South Texas. If convicted of capital murder, Juan David Ortiz, 39, faces life in prison without parole because prosecutors are […]
17 hours ago
Associated Press

Police: 180 dogs and cats removed from home by hazmat team

BRICK, N.J. (AP) — Some 180 dogs and cats were removed from a New Jersey home by a hazmat team after officials reported the animals were being kept in “horrible and inhumane conditions,” authorities say. Brick Township police said officers entered the home Friday night and found stacks of animal crates containing dogs and cats, […]
2 days ago
FILE - In this photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by th...
Associated Press

Iran morality police status unclear after ‘closure’ comment

CAIRO (AP) — An Iranian lawmaker said Sunday that Iran’s government is “paying attention to the people’s real demands,” state media reported, a day after a top official suggested that the country’s morality police whose conduct helped trigger months of protests has been shut down. The role of the morality police, which enforces veiling laws, […]
2 days ago
Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the J Street National Conference at the Omni Shoreham H...
Associated Press

Blinken vows US support for Israel despite unease over gov’t

WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday the U.S. will not shrink from its unwavering support for Israel despite stark differences with Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu and concerns the Biden administration may have about potential members of his incoming right-wing government. Speaking to a left-leaning group that some on the right accuse […]
2 days ago
Associated Press

Farmer: Georgia dog injured saving sheep from coyote attack

DECATUR, Ga. (AP) — A Georgia sheepdog is recovering at home two days after killing a pack of coyotes that attacked his owner’s flock of sheep, farmer John Wierwiller said. Casper, a 20-month old Great Pyrenees from Decatur, fought off a pack of coyotes who were threatening Wierwiller’s sheep farm, he said. The fight lasted […]
2 days ago
Associated Press

Report: Woman attacks 6 deputies at New Orleans airport

Officials say a woman bit, kicked and spat on six sheriff’s deputies while refusing to exit a plane at an airport in Louisiana early Thanksgiving Day, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate reported Saturday. Authorities said the 25-year-old woman attacked Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputies at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, according to local news reports. […]
2 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.
SHIBA WA...

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
‘Nothing’s left’: Hurricane Ian leaves emotional toll behind