Ken Turner’s physical and mental health deteriorated in the days and months after Hurricane Sandy. He knew something was wrong. He was anxious, fearful and living with a constant sense of doom.
Watching, from his neighbor’s window, the water rush through his home was an image he couldn’t get out of his head. He began to forget things, and his speech was affected.
Earlier this year, Turner, 46, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. He smiles and refers to it as “Post Traumatic Sandy Disorder.” It didn’t help Turner’s condition that he had spinal surgery this past spring after an injury unrelated to the storm.
PTSD is a vestige of Hurricane Sandy that many people continue to live with. It is silent and not visible the way destroyed homes are, so it has not gotten a great deal of focus in the media during the storm’s aftermath.
But it is real.
“I’m suffering with it. I see a psychiatrist every month for it. I had to get help,” Turner said.
His nervousness is obvious, and the condition has affected his skin. His hands are raw and the skin is peeling—something he never had a problem with before.
Turner and his wife, Suzanne, have been displaced from their Mystic Island home for the past year. They continue to battle with their insurance company to get money to rebuild. This also has not helped Ken’s mental state. It’s been difficult for the Turners—especially Ken—to return to their home since Hurricane Sandy struck.
“So many people just don’t reach out. There’s a whole community suffering with this.”
“Both my husband and I had major surgeries within the last year. I had stomach surgery and then my husband’s neck. So that put us both out of work for several months. Then my husband was laid off in June on top of everything else we’re dealing with,” Suzanne Turner said.
Joseph Boscarino, Ph.D., a senior scientist and director for Research Methods Training at the Geisinger Clinic in Danville, Pa., has studied PTSD for the last 30 years. He said the disorder could be somewhat deceptive because it does not reveal itself early on, but manifests over time.
Boscarino is a Vietnam War veteran and was in the basement of the World Trade Center changing trains when the planes hit on 9/11.
PTSD was recognized in the Vietnam veterans community in the 1970s and has since become more recognizable, Boscarino said. To diagnose the disorder correctly, an individual must see a psychiatrist or psychologist and meet a certain criteria by answering about 40 questions, he said.
Boscarino said those affected by Hurricane Sandy were not coming in immediately after the storm; now they are coming in for mental-health care sometimes requiring hospitalization.
“Usually people who get the disorder have had other issues before the exposure, and this can bring it out. Also, if they had health issues and financial problems, it impacts it as well. After the storm is the last cable that snaps,” Boscarino said.
PTSD rates after Hurricane Sandy were similar to what was found after the 9/11 attacks, but hurricanes are different from other catastrophic events because they happen in the community, he said.
Dr. Ramon Solhkhah, medical director at Meridian Behavioral Health Services, said that when large-scale trauma events happen, the use of mental-health services declines. Hurricane Sandy was a natural disaster that affected an expansive geographical area, Solhkhah pointed out.
“Is there anyone in Ocean, Monmouth and Atlantic counties that wasn’t impacted in some shape or form by Hurricane Sandy?” Solhkhah said.
Meridian’s outpatient services would have typically seen an influx of crisis patients seeking inpatient services, but that phenomenon wasn’t prevalent after the storm — possibly a reflection of the population shifts and loss of homes in the area, he said.
Although the term PTSD is used very loosely, if an individual has a history of mental-health issues and he or she lives through something like Hurricane Sandy, they are at a higher risk, he said.
“Everyone is so stressed out, depressed and anxious, it’s somewhat normative that people are not looking for help at that time. After about six to eight weeks things settle down for people, and then there is an uptick in mental-health services,” Solhkhah said.
There is an acute and a chronic trauma brought on by housing issues for those displaced and the rebuilding process, he said.
“This makes it hard for people to put anything behind them and start to move forward,” he said.
“Treatment helps. Whether it’s therapy, or medication or both. That is an important cornerstone that you are making sure you are talking to your health care provider,” he said.
Meridian Health Systems and the Geisinger Clinic partnered in May to study the effect of a large-scale natural disaster in a major shore community.
The study was conducted through telephone surveys of Monmouth County residents, who were questioned about the extent to which Hurricane Sandy affected them, their health status before the disaster and whether they have experienced any mental-health issues as a result of the disaster, such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Boscarino said he planned to seek funding to conduct a similar study with residents of Ocean County.
The survey found that about 14 percent of those who participated screened positively for PTSD and 6 percent for depression, Boscarino said.
Boscarino and Solhkhah said the landscape of the region and triggers that constantly remind residents of the storm continue one year later.
The one-year anniversary of the storm is definitely a trigger event, Boscarino said, but it is good that the region did not experience additional storms this year, because that would have put people over the edge.
On the one-year anniversary, the people who lived through Hurricane Sandy should stay away from the images on television and in the media, especially if they’ve experienced anxiety, Solhkhah said.
“There are some people who can watch those images and not think twice, but the second the power goes out or it starts storming, that can cause a panic attack or flashback,” Solhkhah said.
“Then a fire happens on the boardwalk in Seaside and the anniversary is coming up. It’s that chronic trauma, where you get the constant reminders,” he said.
Julie Suarez, 39, has not been able to escape those constant reminders. When she was displaced from her home in the Mystic Island section of Little Egg Harbor Township, she went about 45 minutes north to Ortley Beach, which was also devastated during Hurricane Sandy.
“I left devastation to go live among more devastation,” Suarez said.
Last month, Suarez watched the smoke and flames from the Seaside Heights and Seaside Park boardwalk fire. She said she felt as though it was all happening again.
Like Turner, Suarez was diagnosed with PTSD after the storm. The images have become something she has had to learn to live with.
“It’s panic, it’s anxiety, it’s the unknowing. It’s been a year and I just want to go home,” she said.
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