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From heroism to reconstruction: The phases of emotional rebuilding




MONTECITO, CA - JANUARY 11:  A resident holds a family photo that was retreived from a home that was destroyed by a mudslide on January 11, 2018 in Montecito, California. 17 people have died and hundreds hundreds of homes have been destroyed or damaged after massive mudslides crashed through Montecito, California early Tuesday morning.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
MONTECITO, CA - JANUARY 11: A resident holds a family photo that was retreived from a home that was destroyed by a mudslide on January 11, 2018 in Montecito, California. 17 people have died and hundreds hundreds of homes have been destroyed or damaged after massive mudslides crashed through Montecito, California early Tuesday morning. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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Four years ago, a mudslide just outside of Oso, Washington, engulfed 49 structures and killed 43 people. At the time, it was the worst U.S. disaster of its kind.

Until Montecito. The mudslide in Santa Barbara County has killed 20 and three are still missing. As Montecito begins to recover, we wanted to know if there are any lessons from the Oso mudslide that could be applied here.

Jason Biermann is the director of the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management. He spoke to A Martinez about Oso's rebuilding and offered advice to the residents of Montecito:

"Be inclusive in the sense that even community members who were not directly impacted are still affected. But also understand that the recovery process happens at different speeds for everyone. There are emotional impacts and physical impacts and other things and all of those take time for people to heal and communities to heal...not everyone is on the same timeline."

When it comes to rebuilding after a disaster, it isn't only about replacing lost structures. There's also emotional healing. Heroism, honeymoon, disillusionment and reconstruction are the four emotional phases victims often experience following a disaster.

Carolyn Adolph reported on these phases of emotional recover after the deadly Oso landslide in Washington almost four years ago. She's a reporter with the NPR station KUOW in Seattle. She spoke with A Martinez about how the people of Montecito may be experiencing these same emotional phases.

Heroism

Two days after the mudslide, Adolph spoke with Dan Ranking, mayor of the Washington city of Darrington, which was deeply affected by the mudslides.

"Rankin: Right now going in there somewhat rogue, they're putting themselves in a dangerous situation. We don't know how many people are in there, we don't know how many people come back out."

This illustrates the heroic phase because it highlights the people who are closest by the site, and their desire to help their neighbors and members of their community.  "There's too much at stake," Adolph explained, "so everybody is throwing all of their energy at trying to help the people that they know."

Honeymoon

The honeymoon quickly follows the heroism phase. It marks an emotional peak for survivors. This was most evident to Adolph when she spoke with two high schoolers, Taylor Lindeman and Lindsay Fabri, following the mudslide:

"We're all affected as a whole because this community is so close. We're just one big family. So when one person goes — part of our town's missing." 

During the honeymoon phase, the whole community becomes galvanized. When it comes to Oso, it was the nearby communities that really came together. "They become, in this moment," Adolph said, "one big family. Completely united emotionally."

The phase, Adolph continued, is really beautiful, but it doesn't last very long and it's followed by a stage that is fueled by anger and often goes on the longest.

Disillusionment

The third and possibly longest phase is disillusionment. Evidence of this phase became clear when Adolph met Diane Reece, a woman waiting in a gas card line at a Darrington community center following the mudslide.

"This is the only option we have. It's either this or we don't have food on our table or we don't pay our utilities. What's your choice?"

"The gas card was to partially compensate them for the fact that they were now driving five hours a day to their jobs and back," Adolph said, "As opposed to 20 or 40 minutes." However, the charity providing the cards only offered them in the middle of the work day.

"The recognition of the limits of aid comes about when you realize that the organizations that say they're going to help you will help you on their terms and not on your terms. And that's really harrowing for people to come to terms with."

Rebuilding

The last stop in the emotional journey is rebuilding.  That's when people are slowly, but steadily, recovering. Adolph spoke to a woman who survived the Oso slide, Robin Youngblood.

"As far as I know I was underwater and mud for about three minutes. I can't hold my breath that long. As far as I'm concerned. I died. The conclusion that I finally came to is that what drew me out of the mud in the correct direction...even though my eyes were closed...there had to be some sense of light coming in and pulling me up. I feel like I was reborn."

During this phase, victims still struggle with trying to be made whole. But at the same time, they're finding meaning in their experience. "If you can actually begin to tell yourself some sort of a story about the meaning of this to you..." Adolph said, "that starts to give you the strength to move on."