At a town hall meeting convened while the October fires were still burning, Mayor Chris Coursey urged Santa Rosans “to acknowledge to ourselves and to each other that we’ve been through a trauma in the last couple of days.”
“Some people have lost their lives, a lot of people have lost their property, many have lost their businesses,” he said. “All of us have lost something in the last couple of days, and we need to accept that (and) understand that …”
Two months later, what we now know is that this isn’t going to be easy. In one way or another, many are hurting, even if we don’t always acknowledge the anxiety, pain and uncertainty generated by the aftermath of these horrific fires.
The trauma shows in the exhaustion in the voices of people talking about narrow escapes — or reciting the endless complications associated with setting up a temporary home or rebuilding the old one.
It shows when we choke up and cry when we least expect it.
And it shows when we’re short-tempered with a friend or a loved one.
Experts tell us irritability, anger, sleep loss, depression and a host of physical ailments can be associated with disaster losses.
“The big takeaway is that this is a process not an event,” Santa Rosa psychologist Louise Packard told me. “The initial trauma and shock, the losses, are just beginning. … The grief and trauma work involved in a tragedy of this magnitude is long lasting and will take years to process.”
As people grapple with both grief and post-traumatic stress disorder, Packard said, the community can expect to experience greater frequencies of illness, substance abuse and breakdowns in relationships.
There’s no reason to be surprised by any of this. Sonoma County just endured the most costly disaster in state history. More than 5,300 homes are gone.
People who lost their homes, first responders who saw the devastation up close, friends who comforted friends, people who worry about the well-being of their hometown — for everyone, this is a tough business, and it will take time to heal.
“Sometimes people get focused on the trauma,” Melissa Brymer told the Board of Supervisors last week, “but you also have to focus on the grief — and there are different trajectories.”
Brymer, a psychologist, is the director of terrorism and disaster programs at the UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. She and Robert Macy, also a psychologist, and president of the International Trauma Center, were here to counsel county employees who will lead the disaster recovery. (One hundred and seventy county employees were among the 5,300 families who lost their homes.)
“Everyone’s been touched by this fire,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, who also lost her home.
“The research shows we connect deeply to land, to a house, to the room where you nursed your first baby or did homework with your child,” Macy told the board. “So there’s a bereavement process for being disconnected from the land.”
Packard said many people are suffering from survivor guilt. “People who did not lose their homes still lost their community as they knew it,” she said. “I hear over and over again about fears they have about the long-term effects on the community. More than 200 docs lost their homes. What is medical care going to look like down the road?”
For some, the holidays present their own moments of melancholy and sadness, and now thousands must prepare for the holidays in temporary housing. We are left to wonder how many families will be spending their first holiday without ornaments and other traditions collected over generations — and now turned to ashes.
In the coming months, experts say, fatigue and frustrations will lead to disinterest and to conflict. “In the beginning, there tends to be a unity,” said Brymer, “but over time there become different needs.”
“Make sure there’s a message of tolerance,” she advised the Board of Supervisors. “… Make sure you have voices from different perspectives.”
To take care of ourselves, experts advise that we rely on community resources, grieve with people who understand what we’ve experienced, make sure we’re getting enough sleep, take the time to enjoy our favorite recreations and seek quiet time.
In the elevator of a San Francisco hotel last week, a couple from Arizona asked, “Where are you from?”
“Santa Rosa,” we replied.
Then came that look of concern. “Are you OK?”
This is how it’s going to be for a while.
We’ll need to get used to it, keeping in mind the oldest and simplest of remedies. Next year and the year after that, the healing will continue so long as we look out for each other — and so long as we remember to be gentle with one another.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.