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October 21, 2022 2:21 pm
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How Israelis Helped Americans Respond to Hurricane Ian

avatar by Sharon Slater

Opinion

Flooded streets are seen after Hurricane Ian caused widespread destruction in Fort Myers, Florida, US, September 29, 2022. REUTERS/Marco Bello

On Sunday morning, October 2, just a few days after Hurricane Ian struck Florida’s west coast, a team of experts arrived in Naples, Florida, and began working together with local teams to provide relief for those who lost everything as a result of the storm. I was part of that group.

My colleagues and I are part of the Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit (PCRU) run by United Hatzalah, an Israeli emergency medical service organization. Our team members left their families and their practices behind, just days before Yom Kippur, in order to provide emotional and psychological stabilization for those who had lost so much due to the destruction caused by Hurricane Ian. This was the second such mission in as many weeks, as just a week before, United Hatzalah had sent other members of the PCRU to assist in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Fiona.

On our first day in Florida, we visited a shelter for people who had lost their houses due to the hurricane. Most of them were elderly, but there were also some young families and a handful of people of different ages. Some of them had actually been at home when the hurricane struck, and had survived the total destruction of their house collapsing around them, leaving them with deep mental scars.

The people staffing the shelter instructed me to first attend to Sam*, a man in his 60s. I approached him and initiated a conversation. The tragic irony of Sam’s story caused him to need my help and intervention. Sam now actually has a roof over his head, where he didn’t before — as he had been homeless before the hurricane. But under the roof of the shelter made him feel disoriented. He felt so out of his element that instead of sleeping on the cot provided by the shelter, he slept on the floor, as he was used to that prior to the hurricane. Sam told me that this was his way of feeling “at home.”

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Using different techniques, I tried to make him regain a sense of control over his situation. I pointed out that despite his difficulties, he must have a particular resilience that most people don’t have in dealing with the upheaval and feeling of rootlessness, because he has lived in so many different places. He concurred. “That makes me feel so good, you’re right, I do.” Sometimes, all that people need is to recognize the inner forces that they have within them. With a renewed sense of strength, Sam thanked me for coming to help.

After speaking with Sam, one of the people I came across was Jessica*, a young girl in her senior year of high school, who was there with her four cats in two large cages. I initially engaged with her by talking about the cats.

Jessica recounted how she and her family had been rescued from one of the islands off the coast, which were completely submerged. During the evacuation, her father had moved up to the second floor with a rifle, refusing to leave and insisting that his family be evacuated without him. She had been terrified to leave her father, but Jessica, her brother, and her mother had come to the shelter, along with their cats.

At the shelter, Jessica and her brother had decided that since they were the youngest people by far, they were going to do shopping runs for the elderly. They collected money from people and went out to buy anything that was needed. I was pleasantly shocked. I told her how strong she was, and helped her focus on the significance of her actions. The rest of our conversation was really positive and we both came out of it with renewed strength.

Overall, I see our work in Florida, to be much like the work I did in Surfside, Florida, in Moldova with Ukrainian refugees, and in Texas after Hurricane Harvey, as helping people cope with loss. The debilitating aspect of loss and facing this type of tragedy is a sense of loneliness and a sense of helplessness. Jessica showed that she already had moved beyond hopelessness — she sprung into action to help others, which helped alleviate her senses of loneliness, especially after her father stayed at their home. Sam, on the other hand, has been dealing with loneliness for so long, he didn’t quite know how to deal with kindness and being with other people at the shelter. Now that his situation had changed, and he has a roof over his head, he needed to come to terms with his new situation and recognize that he too was neither hopeless nor alone.

Working together with the staff in the shelter was really remarkable. I cannot say enough about the work that they are doing to help these people, and I am proud that I too am here and a part of it. And I am proud of the effort that Israel constantly makes to be a shining force for good throughout the world.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the people involved

Dr. Sharon Slater is a clinical psychologist and a member of United Hatzalah’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit. She lives in Nof Ayalon, Israel with her family and was recently a member of the organization’s relief mission to Naples and Fort Myers, Florida, to provide emotional and psychological stabilization to people who have been affected by Hurricane Ian. Dr. Slater has been part of previous relief missions including after Hurricane Harvey, the Champlain Towers Collapse in Surfside, Florida, and most recently at the Ukrainian border with Moldova to assist in the refugee crisis that occurred during the first few months of the war in Ukraine.

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