KIHEI, Hawaii (AP) – The South Maui Community Park gymnasium shelter is now a safe haven for Ann Landon. She has a crib, and access to her food, water, showers, books, and even puzzles to gather people to spend the evening.
But just a strong gust of wind instantly brought me back to the horrific moment last week when a massive fire broke out in a senior housing complex in Lahaina.
“That’s what started it,” she said. “The wind was so strong at the time of that fire.”
Mental health professionals are working on Maui to help survivors of America’s deadliest fires in more than 100 years understand what they’ve endured. While many are still in a state of shock, others are beginning to feel overwhelmed with anxiety and post-traumatic stress, which experts say can be long-lasting.
Landon, 70, has sought help twice in recent days to deal with his anxiety. A psychologist she spoke to at her shelter taught her a special breathing technique to slow her heart rate. Another time, a 24/7 crisis nurse at her current shelter comforted her while she cried.
“I could hardly speak to people myself,” she said. “Even when I had an internet connection and people contacted me, I struggled to call them back.”
Candy Olafsson, 65, who slept in the cot next door, said a nurse helped her when she was having a nervous breakdown. Like Landon, Olafsson fled for his life from Lahaina as wind-fueled flames ravaged the historic town and smoke choked the streets. Adding to his past experiences with depression, the trauma of the escape became too much to bear.
“Everything came to a head. Finally I lost it,” she said.
Olafsson said a nurse came over and told her to “just watch” until she calmed down. Staring into her nurse’s eyes, she came back to earth.
“These people have pulled me out of the abyss faster than I’ve ever been,” she said.
What they witnessed in their escape will live long in their minds. It is a trauma that cannot be easily resolved and cannot be easily overcome.
“I know some people died in the water when I was in it,” said John Bear, who fled to sea to avoid the blaze. “I have never seen anything like this before. I will never forget it.”
Dana Lucio, a licensed mental health counselor with the Oahu-based group Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Hawaii, is one of the experts working with survivors on Maui. . She visits various donation hubs around Lahaina on the west side of the island, sometimes door-to-door, snuggling up to people and crying over their shoulders.
Lucio, a former Marine who served twice in Iraq and once in Afghanistan, said he understands some of their feelings because he has experienced post-traumatic stress himself.
“I can connect with them in a way most people can’t,” she said of those affected by the fires. “The trauma therapy I do is something I learned within myself.”
Global medical aid group Direct Relief is working with groups like Lucio to distribute antidepressants and antipsychotics to people who have fled without prescriptions, pharmacy and clinical officials said. Director Alicia Clark said.
When natural disasters occur, people often forget their medicines during sudden evacuations. Downed cell phone towers and power outages could make it impossible to reach doctors, she said, adding that health care access could be complicated by damage to clinics and lack of transportation.
Finding the right dose for mental health patients can take weeks, Clark said, and withdrawal symptoms can occur if the drug is stopped abruptly. For this reason, Direct Relief includes mental health medications in most of its emergency and disaster response kits for people who have lost their prescriptions, she added.
Mental health counselor Lucio said he hopes people think of treatment as a long-term one as the initial shock wears off and the horrifying reality sets in.
“This is something their brains are not ready to understand,” she said. “Continued treatment will be required.”