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5 years later: Superstorm Sandy anniversary can cause victims’ pain to resurface

Five years ago this month, Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc across the northeastern United States and altered lives forever. Sandy unleas...

Five years ago this month, Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc across the northeastern United States and altered lives forever.

Sandy unleashed catastrophic storm surge flooding, claimed 159 lives in the mid-Atlantic and northeastern U.S. and left behind more than $70 billion in damage, making it one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.

The storm notoriously pummeled the New York and New Jersey area, rendering much of New York City powerless and under feet of water in some areas.

Though years have passed and the physical recovery improves, memories of the storm and its aftermath can be a source of mental anguish for victims.

Anniversaries of a substantial event like Sandy can bring a recrudescence of symptoms that victims may have experienced in the immediate aftermath, said Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and a psychoanalyst with the New York Psychoanalytic Institute.

During an anniversary, it’s not unusual to feel more intense symptoms such as anxiety, sadness, sleep difficulties or appetite loss, Saltz said.

Dr. Gerard Lawson, president of the American Counseling Association, said it’s not uncommon for people to have anxiety symptoms or intrusive worries where they can’t shake the memories or thoughts of their original experience.

“It’s a normal reaction as your body and your mind are still sort of processing through the experience that somebody has had and we find that pretty frequently,” he said.

Ongoing stress or anxiety can even manifest into physical symptoms like chronic headaches, muscle pain or stomach ailments, Gerard said.

Karen Bromberg, of Brooklyn, New York, said Sandy caused her tremendous stress which she said contributed to a 17-pound weight gain.

While Bromberg’s home did not suffer damage, the same could not be said for her parents’ home in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn.

The basement flooded significantly due to about 12 feet of water rushing down their street. With the state of the home, Bromberg said she had to put her parents in an assisted living facility and register them for Medicaid.

After that, she began the arduous process of trying to sell the home. They remained in “panic mode” until August 2013, almost one year later, when the house was finally sold, she told AccuWeather.

"[Sandy] was a really difficult time for us as a family,” she said.

Lawson said one way people can cope with painful memories is to get physically active and take part in different activities around the anniversary. This allows them to reshape the experience they endured, he explained.

In Ocean County, New Jersey, where some of the worst damage from Sandy was inflicted, a special community anniversary event is planned.

On Oct. 28, residents will try to set a Guinness World Record by making sand angels on the beach in Seaside Park to commemorate the five-year anniversary and raise money for Sandy recovery as well as for victims of 2017 hurricane season.

These type of “doing” activities show how people are programmed to respond to calls for action when they see others in need, Gerard explained.

“You see this after large-scale events, whether they’re human-caused disasters or natural disasters, people are looking for something to do. They’re lining up to give blood, they’re volunteering with the Red Cross and they’re going out to help clear debris,” Gerard said.

In the Ocean County town of Toms River, Michael Schwartz still sees plenty of people struggling.

Schwartz is the president and founder of Hometown Heroes, a nonprofit and nationwide charity whose mission is to help people in crisis. Before their funding resources dried up, Hometown Heroes assisted Sandy victims with needs like security deposits, home improvements and rental assistance.

He said that while many homes have been rebuilt, there are still people struggling financially. Some still live in hotels five years later, he added.

"Most of those affected are facing devastating financial hardships due to the storm and then spiral into an emotional and mental place that seems to have no end. I didn't understand post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) fully until I saw it up close after Sandy," Schwartz said.
sandy aerial view

An aerial view of damage caused by the storm surge of Hurricane Sandy on the coastline of New York. Numerous houses were destroyed or damaged by the powerful storm. (FEMA Photo/Jocelyn Augustino)

For those who suffer from PTSD, there is no one-size-fits-all remedy, according to Saltz.

Some people find it cathartic to talk through their experiences, whether it be with a trusted family member, friend or therapist. Others may prefer not to divulge their memories or feelings. In some cases, people's symptoms may need to be treated symptomatically.

“For years, we were of the mindset that you gotta get them to talk about it, but it turns out that it isn’t necessarily good for everyone,” Saltz said. "People have to sort of follow their own cue. If it feels like it's better to talk with others, great; if it doesn’t, that’s OK too.”

Since selling her parents’ home, Bromberg said she has not returned to that specific block because it brings up memories that she’d “rather not engage in.”

Bromberg and her husband are striving to return to pre-Sandy conditions. She said they tend to be more anxious about things nowadays, and she is working on losing the weight.

As a result of her experience with Sandy, Bromberg started a business called Help You Thru, a website that serves as an online toolkit for caregivers.

As Bromberg saw people suffering in the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, she emphasized with them.

“I really want them to know they’re not alone," she said. “I really want folks to know that there are people out there who really want to be there with them and help them on their journey,” she said.

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