by Mary W. Quigley
On Monday evening, October 29, as super storm Sandy made landfall on Long Island, Laurie Nadel crouched in an attic crawlspace with her boyfriend and cat and watched as waves crashed through her one-story home. She saw her washing machine, furniture and clothes churn in more than four feet of water that destroyed her house and all its contents. “It was like being in the movie Titanic, watching a force of nature,” says Dr. Nadel, a 64-year-old psychologist and journalist.
When the sun rose the next day, Dr. Nadel joined her neighbors on the barrier island of Long Beach to survey the damage. The force of the waves rushing through their homes had pushed their belongings right out the front doors. Both sides of the street were lined with piles of people’s lives, from furniture to photographs. Their cars also had been ruined by the rushing water. Wandering around shell shocked and crying, holding cell phones up in the air to try to get a signal, neighbors consoled each other as best they could. And the damage continued to mount: sewage pipes had burst leaving the houses filled with toxic sludge, making them inhabitable and eventually condemned. Destroyed was Dr. Nadel’s dream house, her beach cottage where from her garden she watched boats glide by in Reynolds Channel.
What happens when life as you know it is ripped away overnight? Do you rebuild? Start anew? Do you ever feel safe again? We interviewed Dr. Nadel, who has a unique perspective as a Sandy survivor, as a therapist who specializes in trauma counseling, particularly post-9/11, and as a journalist who covered war zones.
Sandy Debris Q. What do you do when your life is destroyed? You lived in your house for 18 years. Do you go out and try to replace everything?
A. The construction debris was higher than my one-story house, and in that pile I saw every door, every knob, all the details I had so carefully chosen through various renovations. From my counseling, I know that change comes with a disaster, and there’s no change without loss and no loss without change. I’ve learned that loss can have a cleansing quality and can take away things that we don’t need. So I decided to get rid of a lot of things I don’t need, and not to replace them. Really, it’s just stuff.
Q. Were there possessions that were painful to lose?
A. I did have sentimental attachment to many things like an antique baby chest from my grandmother. I had put the chest and some favorite books and personal papersall my newspaper articles on top of my bed, thinking that the water would not come up higher than a few inches. After the storm I realized that I had to let it go. Part of the positive aspect of change was that in the weeks right after I heard from people I hadn’t heard from in years. They called, reaching out to be helpful and with a sense of sharing. I re-established connections that wouldn’t have been made otherwise.
Q. So what now?
Dr. Laurie Nadel A. This is my last hurricane. I survived Irene last year and now this, and I don’t want to go through that again. I will repair the house and then decide what to do. I turn 65 next Spring and was planning on making some changes in my life and this has moved up my timeline.
Q. I understand that you have started a weekly support group for Sandy survivors in your hometown of Long Beach.
A. People now are extremely angry; perhaps FEMA didn’t come through or their insurance didn’t give them enough money to do repairs. They are experiencing traumatic grief reactions, with anxiety and a sense of dread that this could happen again. They are having dreams with flashbacks. The group will be a place where we can talk about it.
Q. Many people whose homes were not damaged nonetheless feel traumatized by the Sandy. Some describe feelings similar to the fear and helplessness post 9/11.
A. Whether a natural or manmade catastrophe, when such an event happens it re-triggers feelings of not being safe which can mean memories of a bad childhood incident, a nasty divorce, a bad car accident or the collective trauma of 9/11. Just watching the television coverage and seeing people with their homes and lives destroyed can give you a sense of helplessness and impending dread like a vein that gets reopened. Something of the magnitude of Sandy affects our collective psyche and sense of vulnerability. What’s going to happen next? How we do to stay safe? Those are normal questions.
Laurie Nadel is a psychologist, journalist, and best-selling author. She has been an expert guest on Oprah and a columnist for The New York Times’ Long Island section. From 2003-2005, she directed a program for teenagers whose fathers were killed in the 9/11/01 attack on the World Trade Center. She is in private practice in Manhattan and Long Beach. For more see http://www.laurienadel.com/
Mary W. Quigley teaches journalism at New York University on both the graduate and undergraduate level. The author of two books about women and work, she publishes a weekly blog, www.mothering21.com, about the ups and downs of parenting adult children.