Nebraska Researcher Helps Hurricane First Responders Deal With Grief

Phases of disaster. (Graphic courtesy University of Nebraska Public Policy Center)
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November 29, 2018 - 6:45am

Hurricane Maria claimed more than 3,000 lives and did more than $91 billion in damage in Puerto Rico. A Nebraska researcher went to the island to help train first responders deal with the enduring emotional aftereffects from the storm.


Brandon McDermott, NET News: What were your thoughts upon arriving in Puerto Rico?

Denise Bulling, Director of the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center: Well, I had some trepidation on the way to Puerto Rico. I wasn't sure what the infrastructure would be like, I wasn't sure how recovered they would be -- it was a lot of uncertainty.

The rooftops in Puerto Rico are littered with blue, which indicates a temporary tarp is covering the roof. (Photo courtesy Denise Bulling, University of Nebraska Public Policy Center)

 

When I arrived the uncertainty really disappeared because much of the day-to-day life infrastructure is back to normal. The tourist areas are fine-- the people in Puerto Rico are resilient -- and they are happy to receive tourists because it's really the lifeblood of their of their economy. Short of worrying about infrastructure, my first thoughts when I arrived were essentially of relief, because I had heard and read the horror stories of the recovery and wasn't sure what I would find. So, I would say, Brandon, that relief was the primary emotion that I had when I touched down in Puerto Rico.

McDermott: Your initial thoughts were relief. Did those feelings last?

Bulling:
Puerto Rico is in a state of recovery. They have come a long ways and they've got a long ways to go. The relief that infrastructure was in place was followed by concern for what people had obviously gone through. And as I met people and went about my work in Puerto Rico I was continually impressed by the resilience of the people there.

McDermott: So when you were in Puerto Rico you were providing training in education to responders in the field to enhance their skills as they were working with the population. Can you kind of explain that for us?
 

A group of first responders meet in Puerto Rico to receive disaster training. (Photo courtesy Denise Bulling, University of Nebraska Public Policy Center)

 
Bulling: I was asked to come in through the Disaster Technical Assistance Center via the federal government and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and their partnership with FEMA. The people of Puerto Rico who are working in crisis recovery through their crisis counseling program asked for some additional education for responders in the areas of crisis intervention and in grief management. The responders in the field work long, hard days and they work with people all over the island and they are continually encountering people who have emotional crises. It becomes very difficult to know what to do -- the resources are few and far between and many of the resources that they had relied upon in the past particularly in the more remote areas.
 
McDermott: What about the job of first responders, while they're dealing with all the grief with everything they themselves personally have gone through?
 
Bulling: Puerto Rico has some unique challenges. For example, with Hurricane Florence that recently went through the United States mainland -- there are portions of our country that are impacted by that hurricane -- but you can leave and go somewhere else where all the infrastructure is put together and then come back into the community to live and work. In Puerto Rico, the entire island was impacted so the people that help are also the people who survived the hurricane. They experienced their own losses.
 

Another group of first responders meet with Denise Bulling to receive training. (Photo courtesy Denise Bulling, University of Nebraska Public Policy Center)

 
So as they are helping others, they're dealing with putting their own lives back together, dealing with their own loss of infrastructure and dealing with their own losses. It is a challenge because you can't really get away from it -- it's always there and it's everywhere. It's not just in one portion of the island.

McDermott: Do
you care to share any personal stories that you experienced while down there -- anything of note you saw firsthand?
 
Bulling: There are still blue tarps on roofs a year after the hurricane. This is very concerning for the people working in communities because those blue tarps were not made to last this long and to be a permanent recover for roofs. There are still people who are wrestling with losses that they may feel for a lifetime. There are dwellings that are what we would call informal dwellings where people have lived and built and handed down through generations -- that may not get repaired or rebuilt because they're in low lying areas or there are areas that may not be eligible for aid because it's disaster-prone. So there are still things to be done within those communities. I saw a lot of heart and a lot of resilience. Responders and the people that I worked with are dedicated and hopeful -- they're also very concerned about the people they're working with on the island.
 
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