Emotional toll remains heavy a year after Sandy

Depression, anxiety and PTSD still abound, requiring medication and counseling

Eileen Lombardi has been taking medication for high blood pressure and depression since her home was destroyed by Superstorm Sandy.
Hanifa Haris for Al Jazeera America

NEW YORK — In the winter of 2012, after evenings with her friends, Jenni Lombardi used to drive to her home in Montville, N.J. It was empty, dark and cold, and she sat in the living room and cried.

Her family was in a rental house across town, and she had a bedroom there, too, but it wasn’t home. Home was the house where she grew up, where, as a child, she rode her bicycle in circles around the trees in the yard. When those trees were ripped out by their roots during Superstorm Sandy and crashed through the roof of the kitchen, injuring her mother and destroying their home, Lombardi’s life was uprooted, as well.

“I’ve really been depressed for most of the year,” she said. “This house that I have lived in my entire life, all of my memories — everything was just crushed.”

For many who survived Superstorm Sandy, the devastation has been more than physical and financial. In the first six weeks following the storm, rates of depression in areas hit the hardest increased by 25 percent, according to a Gallup poll. But the emotional toll is still affecting people. A year later, mental health professionals across New Jersey and New York City are citing mental health issues including depression, increased anxiety and even symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — leaving many to resort to anti-depressants and counseling.

“When there’s a disaster, everyone thinks we’ve got to help people get the concrete things back, and that’s important,” said Carolyn Beauchamp of Mental Health Association in New Jersey. “But there’s also an emotional component.”

Eileen Lombardi's home remains covered with a tarp.
Hanifa Haris for Al Jazeera America

During the aftermath of the storm, Lombardi was the sibling who took the brunt of the responsibility for clean up. Her younger brother was finishing college, and her older sister was forced to move in with her fiancé. In addition to the stress of the storm and applying for graduate school, Lombardi was grieving the loss of memories that she now would be denied.

“I missed out on some precious last few months living with my sister, and same thing with my brother,” Lombardi said. “He comes home from school and I’m planning to move away.”

For Lombardi’s mother, Eileen Lombardi, the effects of the storm were as much about the continued process of dealing with the storm as about the storm itself. Over the course of the past year their home has been inspected again and again by their insurance company, and they have been given estimates far under the value of the damage. As the repairs have been put off, black mold has infiltrated the house, leaving it unsafe to enter without a respiratory mask. Now, even seeing commercials for their insurance company upsets her.

“I get infuriated,” she said. “I cannot believe that we’re going through what we’re going through, and I have to see those commercials three times a night.”

On Wednesday, the evening before she sent her lawyer an extensive list of dates and photos outlining the events of the past year, she had severe pain in her head and neck. She could feel the stress manifesting itself as beads of sweat on her forehead, and couldn’t force herself to eat. Though she tried to focus on staying calm, she eventually went to her bedroom for medication. Since Superstorm Sandy, she has been given prescriptions for both high blood pressure and depression.

“I really think it’s going to save me from a stroke,” she said.

'Clears my head'

Eileen Lombardi’s feelings of anxiety and depression are not unique.

The sheer size and scale of Superstorm Sandy made it much harder for many people to bounce back, said Christian Burgess, director of the Disaster Distress Helpline — a project of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Mental Health Association of NYC.

“A lot of people feel like, ‘Why haven’t I moved on? It’s been a year, I should be better by now,’” he said. “But it’s actually pretty common, depending on what you were exposed to during the disaster.”

For Olivia DeCellio, the emotion didn’t hit until a few weeks after the storm. After her home in Highlands, N.J., had been gutted, reality set in. She couldn’t eat properly and she was unable to sleep. Now in temporary housing in an apartment on Fort Monmouth base, she doesn’t know her neighbors or have the level of community support that might help her through the process. Her anxiety has increased because of the difficulty she’s faced in dealing with her insurance, and her family doctor prescribed Xanax for her anxiety.

“I don’t want to say it makes everything better, but it sort of clears my head,” she said. “It's easier to deal with the stress of dealing with the insurance companies; it helps me to focus on what I need to say to these people. I was getting hysterical every time.”

In response to the effects of the storm, New York State’s Office of Mental Health created the Project Hope Crisis Counseling Program, which offers both individual crisis counseling and group sessions. On Wednesday, Katey Leff led a group session on sleep as part of the program. Some of her clients have told her they are afraid of or saddened by triggers like the sound of wind or the sun going down — even now, when they have electricity. She said group sessions are important, because they allow people to know that they are part of a community and aren’t isolated in their feelings.

Amani Watson, 7, lost all her toys but is grateful to have her family.
Hanifa Haris for Al Jazeera America

Family support is also particularly valuable to recovery. Beauchamp, of New Jersey’s Mental Health Association, said that families who have stayed intact are often much more resilient.

“Where the families have open communication, they may be angry, but they’re stable and they’re doing OK,” she said.

Seven-year-old Amani Watson of Queens agrees.

She and her family lost their home when the bay and the ocean swept across Far Rockaway last year. All her family was able to save from the storm was a small collection of souvenirs from her parents’ wedding, which Amani shows off proudly. All of her toys were ruined.

“I don’t have anything (from) before Sandy,” Amani said, “but I still have my family.”

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