April 09, 2020

Doctor says connectedness will ease storm recovery

WATERVILLE — They closed the doors at the Mount Merici Academy emergency shelter Saturday. No one needed the services — the power was on at home for most of the 30-plus people who spent Friday night there.

The Waterville shelter began at the Colby College field house where hundreds sought warmth, food and water after the Ice Storm of ’98. Late in the week, the program was downsized and moved to the Mount Merici school location. On Saturday, volunteers were wearily preparing to close the doors.

Is it over? The power may be on for many, the pumps are running and there’s heat in the house. Yet an area psychiatrist says lingering frustation overshadows day-to-day life as people attempt to get back to normal.

That’s understandable, according to Dr. Robert Croswell, head of the psychiatric unit at Maine General Medical Center in Waterville.

“Everyone was a little on edge even if they had power,” he said. “They just weren’t sure where they might end up or what might happen if they lost their power later.”

In Kennebec, Somerset and Waldo counties, many individual homes were still without power Sunday. Several shelters were preparing to close their doors if they had not already, according to a dispatcher at the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office. Yet about 7,200 homes in the Greater Augusta area were still without power, he said.

Although Croswell noted that many people felt edgy, he also said he found the storm brought people together. He suggested that people continue to work on these connections as they cope with the recovery from the storm and its effects.

“It was nice the way everyone rallied around to help their neighbors,” he said. “I’ve done more socializing in the last week than I have in 15 years, it seems. Hopefully socialization will help people through this.

“This storm was a mixed blessing of sorts,” he said, adding that it took people back to a time when there was more community connection and participation.

As far as the aftermath, Croswell said some people may struggle with uneasiness or feelings of vulnerability, but not as much as they would after a tornado or hurricane.

“Once it’s over, very few people end up with a loss. There is not the same type of devastation,” Croswell said.

However, he said predictions of ice and snow may rekindle some of the fears people experienced in the past two weeks, but sharing or recording stories of this storm will put it in perspective, he said. He suggested parents could reassure children by talking about the unusual nature of the storm.

“You can’t pretend it’s never going to happen again, but you can emphasize how special it was,” he said.

Children may benefit from scrapbooks and journals about the storm to record an event that may not happen again in their lifetime. For children who may develop fears of losing power, parents can emphasize how fortunate the family was to regain power when others didn’t have it, or point out how the family was able to “tough it out” together.

“Emphasize we all survived,” he suggested.

Keeping journals also can help adults put the events of the past two weeks into perspective. Instead of struggling with unresolved feelings or expectations, recording it by any method can help people feel they have mastered the experience. And everyone has their own story about storm survival, he pointed out.

Psychiatric services throughout central Maine suffered a fair share of appointment cancellations in the week after the storm. It was Thursday in one psychiatric practice before a full schedule of patients resumed.

“I think some people are afraid to leave home,” said one of the secretaries. “They fear what they might be going back to if they do [leave].”

The number of calls to emergency services, including local police and sheriff’s departments, increased with the storm and remained so into this week, according to the Kennebec County sheriff’s dispatcher.

“People were getting agitated. That’s to be expected,” he said, explaining there did not appear to be an increase in domestic disputes.

At Maine General Medical Center, Croswell said some of the symptoms people came to the hospital with were caused or complicated by anxiety. Yet several of the patients admitted to the hospital from the emergency room were volunteers at area shelters.

“They just worked themselves to distraction. They suffered sleep deprivation working at the shelters. They were just so worried they weren’t doing enough,” he said. “It’s fascinating. There is such an upsurge in altruism with events like this. People are going out of their way to be helpful.”

The storm also served as an aid for doctors, Croswell said.

“As caretakers, it brings us closer to our patients and the struggles they go through. They regularly wrestle with the feeling of being powerless. It’s good for us as caretakers to understand their viewpoint.”

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