SEA BRIGHT: RECOVERY GETS PERSONAL

Sea Bright Mayor Dina Long, seen rallying her constituents in November, admits the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy has begun to weigh on her. Social services agencies are beginning to address the emotional and psychological needs of storm victims. (Click to enlarge)

By WIL FULTON

Less than half in jest, Sea Bright’s can-do mayor acknowledged Wednesday night that the emotional and psychological strain of Hurricane Sandy recovery have taken a personal toll.

At a town hall meeting held in part to promote outreach programs to help residents map out their own rebuilding plans, Mayor Dina Long told a packed community center that five months after the storm all but obliterated the borough, the challenge of piecing it all back together sometimes gets to her.

“I have to admit I have a new favorite saying that’s in direct contrast with my old favorite saying, which was, ‘Do,’” Long said. “My new favorite saying goes something like this: ‘I feel like my head is going to explode! Do you guys feel like that?”

Groans of approval from the crowd showed the frustration was mutual.

Just days after Sandy hit, Long rallied Sea Brighters at the Rumson-Fair Haven Regional football field, holding up the “DO” portion of a sign from the decimated Donovan’s Reef nightclub and telling her constituents, “We will get through this. We will ‘do.’

Three days later, at a football field in West Long Branch, Long held up another sign fragment, this one reading “SUN,” and said she looked forward to seeing Brian Kirk and the Jirks back at their regular Sunday night gig at the bar this summer.

But Donovan’s Reef, which is under contract for sale, does not appear to be coming back. Complaints about insurance companies abound. And in an obvious attempt to show her bonds with her neighbors, Long – whose own home remains badly damaged by flooding – mapped her own location on a chart showing stages of recovery from a natural disaster.

“Stage one is the warning of a coming disaster,” she said. “Stage two is when the disaster actually hits. Then we get to stages three, four and five. I know about stage three, and I definitely know about stage four.”

“Stage three is the heroic or honeymoon period – there’s a collective sense of ‘we survived.’ It’s characterized by community cohesion, people coming together to help,” she said. “And here I thought we were so unique in Sea Bright – it turns out I’m a textbook example of what you see on this chart.”

But “that goodwill, that compassion and all those good feelings – it’s not possible to sustain that, and it’s followed by an emotional drop,” she said. “That’s the disillusionment phase.”

Long described herself as in the disillusionment stage, in which survivors wrestle with what they perceive as insurmountable legal and bureaucratic barriers, feeling tired and worn thin by the stress.

Knowing that her plight was not unusual “made me feel better about what I was going through, because at least I knew this was normal, and it was normal to feel like this, and probably other people felt like this,” she told a standing-room crowd.

What is this?

“It turns out what we’re going through is normal and expected. What will help us get through this is being together and being in the company of other people who are going through the same things we’re going through.”

The human side of the recovery process has been getting increasing attention in recent weeks. Borough Volunteer Coordinator Frank Lawrence said counselors from CPC Behavioral Health will be on hand 20 hours a week in order to speak to residents, and have set up private cubicles in the town gymnasium to meet with the counselors as they wait for the creation of a permanent recovery center.

Last week, students and instructors from Rutgers University’s School of Social Work were in town to offer their volunteer services under the Sandy Disaster Relief Initiative, which spreads its efforts throughout Monmouth, Ocean and Atlantic counties.

According to Rachel Alvarez, a fellow at the Rutgers School of Social Work, she and her fellow students are attempting to address mental health issues that typically plague victims of natural disasters.

“People have been known to go through things like post-traumatic-stress disorder, anxiety, and depression following an event like Hurricane Sandy,” Alvarez said. “We’re here to provide a community outreach project, and we have sign-up sheets for focus groups that we plan to hold in a few weeks.

“Hopefully, through these focus groups, we can get a good idea about what residents in this town want and need, so we can start on phase two of our plan, which is providing it for them, with the help of the CPC Behavioral Healthcare, who is aiding us in this mission,” she said.

An unnamed senior citizen told officials “how much she misses bingo and the library,” Alvarez said, “And those are the kind of contributions we’ll be looking for in our focus groups. We need to hear from the people before we can do anything to help, because from the outside looking in, it’s hard to tell what people really need to feel comfortable again. Sea Bright is clearly a small, close-knit community, and hopefully through events like this, we can get some sense of community back.”

In addition, Lawrence also detailed the plan for World Renew – a faith-based disaster response group – to begin conducting phone survey of residents, both those in-town and displaced, in order to get a grasp on the short-term and long-term needs of the residents.

He also stressed the need for more community based activities that will not only bring people back to town, but foster a sense of community. Lawrence said he believes efforts like these will eventually drive the borough to the fifth stage of disaster response: recovery.

In addition, Lawrence outlined the creation of the Sea Bright Recovery Center, which he said will provide services such as case managers to help residents plan out their recovery in the long-term.

“The role of the case manager is to help you plan your personal recovery, not the town’s or your neighbor’s, but your recovery,” he said. “They’ll go through the particulars of what happened to you and help you plan out what you need to do to get to an acceptable level of recovery. They’re here for the long run, they are there for you and talk to you on a regular basis – they won’t do everything for you, but they have access to a lot of resources and are here to help.”

“It will level out at some point, we’ll see progress and it will give us strength, Long said, referring to the final stage of recovery. “At some point we start believing in our ability to recover again. The textbooks say about 25 percent of people will realize they are not recovering, and maybe not all of them will reach out for help. The good news is there are resources here to help us.”