Mt Pleasant News
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Wash Journal   Fairfield Ledger
Neighbors Growing Together | Nov 17, 2017

Don’t clock out, disaster relief takes time

By Grace King, Mt. Pleasant News | Oct 27, 2017

A couple weeks ago, I gave a call to Scott Quinn, an interfaith leader in northern California. Quinn is living in the heart of California wine-country, which was destroyed by wildfires this month. He was consumed with the task of finding housing for displaced people.

I met Quinn this past summer when I interviewed him for a story for United Religions Initiative (URI) about Marin Interfaith Council’s homeless ministry, the organization he is the executive director of. URI is a grass roots interfaith organization dedicated to promoting interfaith cooperation to create cultures of peace, justice and healing.

Talking to him about the disaster relief in the midst of the still-raging fires, Quinn said, “It’s everybody’s focus during that week when the tragedy, the crisis, is happening, but people’s lives are uprooted and devastated. Recovery takes months and years.”

Although it’s now out of the news cycle, volunteers in disaster areas are still working to coordinate relief efforts and pick up the pieces of lives demolished by fire and water.

This is what they said would happen. If we are not the ones in crisis we forget. We move on.

Part of the reason I think we move on — or at least part of the reason I move on — is because I do not have the energy to continue investing emotionally in each individual tragedy. This is what experts call “disaster fatigue.” With readily-available social media and trending news cycles, we start and end the day looking at devastating news. It takes a toll.

This was the same concern of Terry Henshaw, who I spoke to about disaster relief after Hurricane Harvey in Texas. Henshaw had been on the ground in Texas for about a month, going house to house delivering food to people whose entire belongings were stacked eight-feet high on the curb.

Rod Baker too, who is based in Tulsa and lived in New Orleans for years working on disaster recovery after Hurricane Katrina, knows it takes more than just a month of recovery for people to put their lives back together.

“People think, especially with media, people think because things only stay in the headlines for just a short period of time, that it’s (taken care of),” Baker said. “That’s not true. It’s still there.”

In her article in the New York Times, Jennifer Jolly called this “the bad news blues.” Quoting Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Jolly writes, “(It’s) a normal reaction when bad things are happening away from our own community, where we can do little to aid those in need … People might also experience an increase in stress, depression, exhaustion, sleep problems, anger and growing cynicism.”

As an interfaith leader, Quinn suggests combating these emotions by connecting to the calm, still, center point within your faith tradition.

“If we are to remain active and engaged (with recovery), then we have to continue to identify with that center point,” Quinn said. “That allows us to continue to face and feel the pain of seeing our neighbors in distress, which enables us to stay present because we’re grounded in that place of stillness.”

“Then we can continue to respond and stay active and involved,” he continued. “Otherwise, we’re going to burn out because it’s just too much.”

Another interfaith leader I spoke with, Michael Pappas, is the executive director of the San Francisco Interfaith Council, which was born out of disaster recovery during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area. He said it’s natural to go through the stages of grief, even as an onlooker.

“No one can go it alone,” Pappas said.

To fight the sadness and grief, to find our “center point” and get back to recovery, as Quinn said, experts say the first step is to unplug.

Repeated exposure triggers our fight-or-flight response that wears us down, Jolly writes. To avoid burnout, limit repeated exposure to the tragedy. Set a clock on how long you’re watching or reading the news and don’t continue to check for updates every five minutes (like I’m prone to do).

The other advice Jolly gives is to read some good news to boost your spirits and practice self-care.

“Self-care implies that I cannot absorb all of the horrible things happening in this world 24 hours a day,” McNaughton-Cassill said.

After taking time to decompress and find your center point, I want to take it one step further and encourage you to consider giving, maybe for the second time as recovery efforts in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and northern California continue.

While it may be difficult to give financially to relief efforts, keep in mind that recovery takes years. Ask your local church to host a missions’ trip or organize a trip yourself. Connect with a local nonprofit in an area of disaster to ensure a sustainable plan to help in this time of crisis.

“Rebuilding takes time, healing over the long term takes time,” Quinn said. “While the primary (emotion right now) is sadness, I would say one other thing is some sense of camaraderie with so many people coming forward to help and assist. While it’s immensely painful, we’re not alone.”

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