SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - When more than 300 people were killed by 100 tornadoes sweeping through the southeastern U.S. in recent days, media interviews showed victims shell-shocked and bewildered as they faced the devastation. Catherine Massey, associate professor of psychology at Slippery Rock University, and Carol Holland, associate professor in the SRU Counseling Center, say the reactions are not uncommon and have a lot to do with an individual's resiliency.
News stations across the U.S., including CNN, carried multiple interviews with those affected by the severe storms, flooding and destruction of their homes - even entire towns or communities. The recent tornado outbreaks have left more than 1,000 people injured or homeless.
"To see people in a fog, a state of shock, or basically in disbelief of the evidence is not at all uncommon," Massey said. "The length of the effect varies. It may be short term, but in effect when somebody is impacted to that extent by a catastrophe, they go through a grieving process that is impacted by many psychological factors."
How quickly someone recovers, or returns to their normal demeanor varies.
"Some people have what we call 'resilience'; some have the ability to overcome adversity; not every has that. Some are able to bounce back; some are more resilient," she said.
"Resilience is a hard construct. It is hard to nail down, even within the same family some members could be more resilient than others. Kids are often resilient, but others may not be able to cope. It could be within their personality or in their genes; it is often a combination of the two. Basically, it how you view things," she said.
Holland, who also volunteers with the American Red Cross offering First Aid to disaster victims, agrees.
"When something like these tornadoes happen, some people's only way to cope is to psychologically anesthetize themselves. They are in a fog; a very strong place of disbelief. They are walking in a fog, and it is important for people to help them along the way. Sometimes they are in such a state of disbelief, they will walk in front of response vehicles, or walk back into a former home or business that is in shambles, with live wires or other physical and harmful barriers. They are just not thinking," she said.
"For some it is a psychological way of anesthetizing the enormity of what it all means. It is a sense of fogginess, disbelief, often followed by a feeling of 'Oh, my God, we are alive, but my home is gone, my job is gone, my school is gone, my community is gone. I don't believe it,' feelings. It is really not uncommon, especially if there is also a death in the family due to the event. The person may be walking around with no mission, " Holland said.
Holland, who offered counseling following the 9-11 attack in New York City, after Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana and expects to be called up in the wake of the recent outbreak of tornadoes, was most recently called to aid those involved in a recent drowning at nearby McConnell's Mills. She is trained to help those affected find food, shelter, the basic necessities and counseling.
Most people, after a time, even a few days, get back on track, by rebuilding, their community, the home and their family, but the initial reaction is not atypical, she said. "It is just a way to manage the enormity of the situation," Holland said.
"We run into problems when people can't snap out of it, which is often the case if they are also suffering from a family member's death or unemployment or other psychological difficulties," she said. "We want to help get them back to a normal lifestyle, to return their life to normalcy. That can be accomplished, in part, by getting them back to their daily routines - three meals a day, normal bed time and things like that."
"We also work to help restore a sense of safety, reassuring people that others are there to help them; that they are not alone. Often people in a group, like those in the South currently dealing with the tornadoes, may still have a sense of being alone; or lost. They are facing a lot of uncertainty, and we need to help them connect with others; others in their family and assure them they are safe," she said.
"We give them information so they can decrease their sense of 'unknowing,'" Holland said.
Holland recently trained to become a trainer for psychological first aid. "One of the things we talked about in those training sessions was separation from a pet. People who have lost a pet have a loss and the grief they feel is not different from those who have lost a real person. We need to be sensitive to the loss of a pet and offer help," she said.
Massey said the resilience level is also measured in terms of "shock."
"It varies from person-to-person and can be an initial short term event, or last much longer. There are many factors at play.
"Many people think the event is never going to happen to them. Those in Alabama probably did not have a cellar to escape to; things were pretty much wide open. A tornado that powerful, with no place to go, left them in a very difficult situation. They found themselves in a fog, walking around in a daze, and unable to believe what had happened," she said.
"Usually there will be agencies that will make counselors available. I suspect the University of Alabama will bring in more counselors to help students, faculty and staff cope with the aftermath of the tornadoes," she said.
People come to understand that life is fragile, and such events provide a different perspective on life, she said.
"Some of those affected will have post-traumatic stress disorder, which is pretty common after something of this magnitude. We saw it after Hurricane Katrina. Something this devastating finds many who just cannot cope with it or recover quickly," she said.
"People living in our region truly don't understand the gravity of a situation like Hurricane Katrina; the loss of lives, homes and so many people displaced. Recovery will vary among those who are actually in the situation and how quickly their sense of loss and sense of security can be rebuilt," Massey said.
To donate to victims of the Alabama visit: www.alredcross.org/general.asp?SN=8722&OP=8724&SUOP=15620&IDCapitulo=DRGYJ0Q5XZ.