Showing Up — Days, Months, Even Years After a Disaster

How to avoid compassion fatigue and continue to help those affected by tragedy

Volunteer organizes items at a relief center for those affected by Hurricane Sandy last fall. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
Volunteer organizes items at a relief center for those affected by Hurricane Sandy last fall. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
It’s been a year since Hurricane Sandy killed 72 Americans and did $65 billion worth of damage to the East Coast, not to mention the lives and property lost in other countries. I’ve never been to the Northeast, where Sandy wrought the bulk (though not all) of her destruction, but I have a pretty good idea of what people up there have been going through for the past 12 months: an endless tug-of-war with insurance companies and contractors, crippling financial hardships, and a whole lot of emotional stress.

For those of us far from the affected areas, it’s easy to forget about natural disasters. Life gets busy, the news cycle moves on, and the stories and images that made us pull out our checkbooks and our rosaries when the disaster was still fresh fade from memory, crowded out by more recent world events and our personal, day-to-day concerns. However, just because a disaster no longer dominates the headlines doesn’t mean that people in its path no longer need our help. Here’s a (very) brief update on some of the disasters to wreak havoc on our country in recent years.

  • Hurricane Sandy — Since the storm landed in New Jersey October 29, 2012, politicians have trumpeted the great progress made in rebuilding the Jersey shore. However, that progress has not come soon enough for many seaboard property owners. Bureaucratic red tape and inexpertly staffed insurance companies have delayed or even outright thwarted some New Jersey residents’ attempts to rebuild. In an irony that sets the teeth on edge, the just-rebuilt boardwalks in Seaside Park, along with a score of businesses, went up in a fire just 11 months after the storm. Despite some gains, intense frustration and anxiety still dominate the Sandy recovery story.
  • Tornado in Moore, Oklahoma — May 20 of this year, an EF5 tornado killed 24 residents of Moore, Oklahoma, 10 of them children. The tornado injured more than 300 people, and it destroyed 13,000 homes as well as more than 30 businesses. Nevertheless, according to disaster responder Richard Norman, volunteers began to leave Moore a mere eight weeks after the twister struck. Meanwhile, citizens of Moore face $84 million in damage and possible exposure to asbestos.
  • Tornado in Joplin, Missouri — The tornado that ripped through Joplin, Missouri, in May 2011 was like the one that demolished Moore, only more so. Another EF5, this tornado killed 161 people and flattened thousands of homes, with damages totaling about $2.8 billion. The good news is Joplin has made huge progress toward recovery. Helped by a business-driven approach to rebuilding, Joplin has recovered to the point where a committee founded specifically to help Joplin’s tornado survivors recently disbanded — though I should note that other organizations with similar missions intend to keep working. I should note, too, that while much of the physical landscape has healed, spiritual and emotional scars remain, and many Joplinites still struggle to find adequate employment.

This is just a small sampling of recent disasters in our country. I could have included Hurricanes Isaac and Irene, or the floods that ravaged Colorado just a few months ago. That’s before even mentioning natural disasters in other countries. Nor have I touched on the more complex, far-reaching, and intangible losses a disaster often leaves in its wake: loss of culture and identity.

So what can we do — we lucky ones whose lives aren’t in shambles because of flood, fire, or wind?

First: don’t get compassion fatigue. In the face of such massive devastation, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, and being overwhelmed can stifle a person’s impulse to help. Make a realistic assessment about what you can do, and then do it. Can’t give any money but can give time to volunteer efforts? Great. Can’t volunteer but can make a donation? Also great. Every little bit helps.

Consider adopting a disaster — just one. Make a commitment to help not only when the initial catastrophe strikes but throughout the recovery. Go out of your way to keep apprised of recovery efforts, even after Anderson Cooper stops talking about them. Pray for the victims every day. You could focus on the hardest-hit areas, or you could turn some much-needed attention to the places the media doesn’t cover quite as lavishly. (Here’s looking at you, Bayou La Batre.) For news updates and opportunities to help, check out Catholic Charities or the United Methodist Committee on Relief; the latter is particularly well known for long-term commitment to disaster recovery.

Finally, many scientists attribute the severity of recent natural disasters to manmade climate change. One more way to support disaster recovery is to mitigate future disasters by limiting our carbon footprints, as advocated by the Catholic Climate Covenant.

In addition to pulling from their own resources and resiliency, disaster victims depend upon the support and generosity of strangers. The fact that strangers always — always — show up, ready to open their doors, hearts, and pocketbooks, is a credit to our humanity. The next step is to maintain that active compassion not just for a few days or weeks but throughout what is often a long and grueling recovery process.