Shelter fatigue: Stress takes toll on lava evacuees

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Evacuees' tents and tarps form rows of temporary homes in the parking lot Thursday at the shelter at Pahoa Community Center.
  • Stacy Welch
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Leilani Estates evacuee Lesa Callahan tears up while talking about the eruption Thursday. She setup camp in a dugout of a baseball field at the shelter at Pahoa Community Center.

Stacy Welch has been staying at the emergency shelter in Pahoa for more than a month.

Forced out of her Leilani Estates home by the eruption activity, she — and many others — don’t know when they’ll be able to leave.

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Welch, her daughter and hanai daughter, both 19, and pets evacuated from their home, located near fissures 9 and 24, with fissure 8 two streets behind her, on May 3.

Born and raised on Oahu, Welch bought her property on the Big Island two years ago, but only moved there last July.

The American Red Cross has been providing food, clothes and toiletries in the shelter, but Welch said there has been “a lot of miscommunication” between the agencies at work in the shelter.

“It just takes a lot of work to get done what you need to be done, but we’re doing OK,” she said.

She’s frustrated.

In one example, Welch said she had gone to get something to eat the night before and was late because she had attended a Civil Defense meeting.

Welch said there were two full pans of food, and she wanted “a tiny bite” from each one, but was told she had to choose. She didn’t eat dinner that night. The next afternoon, though, a man was there making cotton candy for the shelter residents.

Regardless of circumstances, Welch said the shelter is home now because “we don’t have a home to go back to.”

As far as their shelter stay goes, “there’s no end in sight,” she said. “As long as that lava is flowing and earthquakes (are) going, we have no place to go. There’s really no way to feel about it. You just deal with it.”

Her daughter, Madison Welch, 19, recently left the Pahoa shelter for other housing. She goes back to visit her mom, but said she doesn’t like being there.

“At this point, it just feels very hostile in there.”

Madison said she had to get out because it was “too negative for me.”

Stacy Welch said that the general morale at the shelter is down.

“It’s like, ‘Wow, we’re here another day, and there’s no end in sight,’” she said.

Lesa Callahan, who evacuated from Leilani, has been at the Pahoa shelter from the beginning, too.

Her experience has been “good and bad.” She has been “somewhat disappointed with the Red Cross, but outside of the Red Cross, the support has been overwhelming from the community, from private donors as well as businesses,” she said.

Shelter operations seem to be “overstaffed and very unorganized,” Callahan said.

She is part of a group staying in the community center’s upper baseball field that have been assisting others in need.

There are safety concerns, too, because the shelter is open to anyone, she said.

Despite qualms with the Red Cross, Callahan said they’re thankful to the county for providing the shelter space, “because without this, where would we be? We’re very thankful to have a roof, albeit it’s a tarp, over our heads.”

On Friday, she said spirits seemed to be good despite the rain the night before and Pele’s hair everywhere.

“Everybody and everything is wet, (but) spirits seem to be high,” she said. “… We’re quite a resilient people. We’ve faced adversity before. This is not our first rodeo, so I think everybody, as a whole, we’re doing well. Very blessed we are.”

According to Red Cross public affairs supervisor Virginia Hart, on Friday, the Pahoa shelter had 80 people staying inside and 230 outside, while the emergency shelter at the Keaau Armory had 32 people inside and 43 outside.

Since the eruption began, there had been 5,637 overnight stays in the emergency shelters, and 612 people have registered with the Red Cross all together.

The Red Cross has partnered with several different agencies, “and there are meetings almost every day” to address the needs of those staying there.

“We’re trying to get to a place where everybody can be satisfied with a resolution that may not be perfect, but that’s acceptable to everybody,” Hart said, adding that the Red Cross isn’t necessarily the lead agency on all of the issues.

Like any other disaster, Hart said the response to the ongoing Kilauea eruption requires cooperation from all local responders, both governmental and not, as well as faith-based organizations “so the needs of all the people are addressed.”

Other agencies working in the shelters include the Salvation Army, the Hawaii Island Humane Society, and Church of the Brethren, which has been providing disaster services for children, as well as other faith-based organizations, according to Red Cross volunteer Bob Engler.

In light of the ongoing nature of the eruption disaster, Hart didn’t know how long the emergency shelters would remain in operation and is “not sure anyone does.”

The pressing issue, Hart said, is going to be housing for people who have lost their homes.

As for the overall morale, Hart said people who been there from the outset are “getting a little frustrated with the process.”

“It’s hard to be out of your home for over a month and not feel displaced and discouraged,” she said.

They’re ready for a more permanent solution, Hart said, “so everyone is working as hard as they can to get that accomplished.”

Tory Fiedler, a licensed independent clinical social worker and disaster mental health supervisor for the Red Cross, said that when someone is displaced by a disaster and goes into an emergency shelter, they’re disconnected from their normal routines.

Eating and sleeping patterns are disrupted, they’re with people they don’t know — in close quarters and at higher density that they’re used to — and there are a lot of sights, sounds and smells they’re not accustomed to, she said. The lack of privacy can be an issue, too.

“All of that causes a lot of stress for adults, for children, for families,” Fiedler said.

People who are under stress like that for an extended period of time can suffer from exhaustion. There’s also a lot of uncertainty about what happens next.

In the wake of a disaster, Fiedler said, adults may be displaced from their jobs, children may be displaced from their schools, “and that creates a lot of uncertainty about what’s next and whether I’m going to be OK.”

According to Fiedler, people who are in distress and under stress, are frequently open-hearted and generous with an interest in helping others.

But people also can be irritable, exhausted and have difficulty remembering things or “have trouble thinking things through because there are so many distractions,” she said.

Disaster mental health, which is under the umbrella of the Red Cross’ disaster operations, aims to support people and help them deal with the stresses they’re facing, reminding people of their “resiliencies and strengths,” said Fiedler.

“They have coping skills they have used in the past that will work for them again now, and part of what we do is remind people they can use those same coping skills that have worked for them before, and that they are resilient and able,” she said. “We remind people that help comes from people and places that you never expected, and that it’s OK to accept that help.”

The Red Cross doesn’t provide therapy or therapeutic programs, but rather aims to connect people to existing mental health services and agencies in the community, Fiedler said.

“The first thing that we tell people is do what works for you,” she said. “There is virtually nobody over the age of 2 who has not had challenges in their lives. … This isn’t the first time that you have had a challenge. What did you do last time? … We want people to eat and sleep and breathe and take care of themselves. We want people to remember that they will survive this, that while it is extremely difficult, they have survived things in the past and things will get better.”

Anyone who has symptoms preventing them from taking care of themselves should reach out.

“If the feelings that you have are overwhelming you, and you feel like you cant take care of yourself, then reach out for help,” Fiedler said.

In the shelters, Fielder said, the Red Cross’ disaster mental health team has been averaging about 80 contacts a day, “and people don’t have to come to us, we will go to this.”

A disaster of this nature also poses difficulties because it’s ongoing.

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“I think that increases the uncertainty for people of what’s next,” said Fiedler. “And I think that makes this particularly challenging.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com

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