PTSD, Re-Traumatization, a Lifeboat Mentality and Flood-Bond Politics

Yesterday, I learned about re-traumatization of people suffering PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) from Harvey. I had contacted Janice Costa, one of Kingwood’s leading psychotherapists to gain some insight. Keep in mind as you read this that neither Costa, nor I, have any idea how widespread this phenomenon is. However, Stephen Costello, the City of Houston’s flood czar, while speaking to a symposium on flooding at the University of Houston last year stated that 18% of Harris county’s residents suffered some sort of serious psychological distress after Harvey.

From presentation by Stephen Costello to Houston Geological Society in 2018 during a symposium on Flooding in Southeast Texas: The Science Behind the Floods. Costello said 18% of Harris County residents were suffering from “serious psychological distress” after Harvey.

I pointed out to Costa how the traffic on my site spiked when I posted The Night 11,000 Lake Houston Area Residents Became Homeless. Thousands of people have viewed it in the last week and are still viewing it. In fact, it’s my most popular flood post ever with the exception of the one with that snappy headline, Public Notice.

Trash Day in the Barrington after Harvey. Photo by Joy Dominique.
Trash Day in the Barrington after Harvey. Photo by Joy Dominique.

What Did I Tap Into?

I had accidentally tapped into some powerful emotions, but I wasn’t sure what or why and hoped Costa could help. Costa said victims sometimes feel such images and stories “validate” what they went through. “Yes! See. It was that bad!”

In the case of Harvey, it’s difficult for some people to let go, because they are constantly getting “re-traumatized” from related sources, she says. The examples below represent my interpretation of what she said, not literally what she said. I added dozens of examples that people have shared with me along the lines she mentioned.

Re-Traumatization, Day after Day

As if Harvey weren’t a big enough disaster, how about these complications? Do any of them sound familiar?

  • Flooding, but not having flood insurance, because you thought you were safely outside the 500-year flood plain
  • Power outages, spoiled food, Igloo coolers and grilling in the rain
  • Food lines, second-hand shops and shelter life
  • Separation from families, not being able to find loved ones in the shelter system
  • Loss of important papers, tax documents, and family albums
  • Losing the Bible that had been in your family for five generations
  • Gutting your own house, often with the help of strangers
  • Not being able to monitor everything they dragged to the curb
  • Seeing your life’s work piled on the street and picked over by looters
  • Your first Christmas without wallboard
  • Family heirlooms destroyed
  • Showering with a garden hose
  • Being displaced and dispossessed
  • Being forced to accept charity instead of feeling privileged to give it
  • Finding temporary lodging with friends, family or in hotels
  • Moving every few weeks so you didn’t wear out your welcome
  • Finding a vehicle and then finding out it had concealed flood damage
  • Stress at work from not being able to focus on your job while you rebuilt your life
  • The bad performance review at work that you knew was coming
  • Losing a business
  • Kids who cried themselves to sleep every time it rained
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat when you hear a helicopter
  • Feeling guilty about not being able to thank all the people who helped you
  • The two extra hours a day you didn’t get to spend with your kids because they were being bussed cross town to another high school.
  • Report cards that showed plummeting grades because your kids were traumatized
  • Educational handicaps that your kids may face for the rest of their lives as a result of effectively losing a year
  • Living in a camper
  • Your insurance benefits running out before repairs were completed
  • Losing your job
  • Losing your mind
  • Losing your spouse from all the stress
  • Trying to find money to rebuild
  • Living out of your car
  • Not having a car to live out of
  • Battling with the insurance adjuster
  • Battling with FEMA
  • Looking for help and battling a million other people looking for help
  • Struggling to find a contractor
  • Struggling to get the contractor to show up and do the work
  • Giving up the family vacation to supervise a contractor who didn’t show up
  • The contractor who ran off with your check
  • Finding out that the contractor hung your new front door upside down
  • Shoddy repairs with inferior materials
  • The City inspector who said the contractor did it all wrong
  • Lung ailments from breathing that unique Houston brew of mold, varnish, plaster dust and Clorox
  • Seeing friends and relatives succumb to the stress
  • Friends moving away to escape the stress
  • Going to the laundromat and using the machine next to the guy who was washing the clothes he had on
  • Living upstairs for a year and a half
  • Using your garage as a walk-in closet
  • Actually beginning to think of Taco Bell as haute cuisine
  • Learning to cook with a hot plate and a microwave
  • The stress zit that looked like a third eye in your forehead
  • Your favorite stores and restaurants being out of business for a year … or disappearing altogether
  • Going to college classes in a rented warehouse
  • Commuting two extra hours a day because the 59 bridge was out
  • Draining your retirement funds to rebuild
  • Then finding that wasn’t enough and tapping into your kids’ college funds
  • Not knowing how you’ll replenish them
  • Gaining 20 pounds from Chunky-Monkey stress relief
  • Jaw and neck pain from constantly grinding your teeth
  • FEMA and HUD help that arrived after you’d already rebuilt your home
  • Discovering that you lost all your repair receipts
  • Aches and pains from doing-it-all-yourself
  • Learning to love scratch-and-dent sales
  • Refurnishing your house from “Flooding Kingwood with Kindness”
  • Losing someone to cancer or heart-disease while trying to cope with everything else
  • The neighbor that abandoned the house next door…affecting your home’s value
  • Fearing what the next storm front could bring

My apologies to anyone I omitted!

More Re-traumatization!

Now consider the political systems around you. While we struggled individually, government offered help. Then came other kinds of re-traumatization.

The Lifeboat Mentality

In my opinion, people are looking for help and seeing hurt ahead. Many SAW the flood bond as a lifeboat. It buoyed their hopes and dreams for a return to safer shores. They were counting on the mitigation projects in it to protect them. Now, they feel thrown overboard by the struggle over prioritization of projects, i.e., who gets theirs first.

Our county judge called it “class warfare.” Fox News called it “bait and switch.” I call it maddening. I think residents rich and poor would agree.

Residents who suffer from PTSD, have suffered re-traumatization – so severely, so many times – that they may feel there is no escape. Political jousting just re-traumatizes them.

No one is telling them that more than half of the flood bond projects have started already.

Meanwhile, depression, anxiety and related illnesses are starting to surface. One of my dear friends lost her home to Harvey, her husband to cancer, and now is struggling with cardiac issues as she tries to rebuild her home. Alone.

Turning Negatives into Positives

Costa did offer a ray of hope. Some people have managed to find something positive in the flood experience, she said. For instance, those intent on remodeling might suddenly have the insurance money to do it.

One of my dreams is that Republicans and Democrats find a way to work together again. Maybe, collectively, we’ll find a way to create a functioning government that reduces flood risk and restores a sense of order to our lives in time to handle the next big hurricane. I think that would be a positive outcome from all of this. For all of us.

Posted by Bob Rehak on March 7, 2019 with help from Janice Costa

555 Days since Hurricane Harvey