Editor’s note: Even one year after the storms that hit on April 27, 2011, subsequent storms and storm anniversaries can trigger anxiety, fear and some of the same feelings felt on that day. If you, your children or someone you know is experiencing this, please see our Ask Anne article “Responding to Kids/Teens After a Disaster” or this Critical Incident Stress Information Sheet* for some practical tips. And, as always, please contact us if you feel you would benefit from professional counseling at 1-866-991-6864, or firstname.lastname@example.org
One Year After Tornadoes, Children’s Homes, Pathways Still Helping
By Erin Tunnell, ABCH Communications Manager
They entered the sanctuary of Flint Hill Baptist Church, Bessemer, slowly, somberly, anxious to find help. Casts, wheelchairs, crutches and bandages bore silent witness to the physical injuries these tornado survivors sustained, but the atmosphere was heavy with the unspoken testimony of emotional and psychological wounds.
In the first of several critical incident debriefings led by our Pathways Professional Counselors with survivors of the April 27, 2011, tornadoes, the storm survivors sought healing as they talked through their experiences — sharing their hurt, anger, and fears.
“It was surreal,” said Lisa Keane, Clinical Director of Pathways. “We were talking with people who had lost loved ones; families whose houses had been torn from the foundation as they were inside, like something you see in the movies.
I was so burdened for the hurt these people were experiencing and the knowledge that psychological healing was going to be a long process for these families and individuals.”
In the days and weeks following the outbreak of deadly tornadoes that will forever define that April day, the counselors of Pathways Professional Counseling and employees of its parent ministry, Alabama Baptist Children’s Homes & Family Ministries (ABCH), sought ways to reach out to the hurting of the state.
Even as we grieved the loss of life and the destruction, we moved into action, with the ministry granting time off for staff to assist in clean up and ministry to the storm victims. As one employee was working in Tuscaloosa, he noticed a need for baby items. Our five regional offices in Decatur, Dothan, Birmingham, Mobile and Oxford coordinated with Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief to serve as collection points for diapers, baby bottles and formula. We then distributed those items among churches who were working on the front lines of the response. We also collected disaster relief funds to distribute among families in need.
One of our former residents and her children were injured and lost their home due to the EF-4 tornado that devastated Tuscaloosa. We were blessed to walk alongside her during her child’s subsequent hospitalization and to be family for her during the dark days following the storm. We were honored to be able to minister and play a small role in her family’s recovery.
“At the Children’s Homes, we are privileged to serve the children and families of Alabama,” said Rod Marshall, ABCH President/CEO. “When crisis occurs, we look for and welcome opportunities to partner with Alabama Baptists and others to protect, nurture and restore children and families through Christ-centered services.”
In addition to leading the session at Flint Hill Baptist, Our Pathways Professional Counselors led sessions in Hackleburg, Tuscaloosa and Cullman. We provided counseling to those affected by the storms at no charge.
And one year later, the work still continues, as we still counsel some who were affected by those and subsequent storms such as the tornadoes that again hit the state in January of this year. After that outbreak, our counselors worked in the Centerpoint and Clay/Chalkville areas of the state, and employees again reached out to help in various ways.
While helping us see the progress made, anniversaries such as this can also remind us how much is left to be done, especially in the process of healing psychologically. Survivors can experience “anniversary reactions” where news coverage or other anniversary-related events and sights can trigger the same feelings and physical symptoms of stress reaction as the actual event, said Ross Hickman, Program Director of Pathways. Many times, those who did not have any such reactions after the initial event will have a “delayed response” weeks, months or years later as a sight, sound or smell triggers memories of the tornadoes.
“This is definitely normal and typical,” Hickman said. “You are not going crazy if you’re experiencing these reactions for the first time.” He advises that those experiencing the mental and physical symptoms of a stress reaction to begin working through it by sharing their story with a trusted friend.
And if you or someone you know has been dealing with these feelings for the past year, or continue to experience them after 4-6 weeks, Hickman advises seeking professional help. “You have to begin working through it before healing can happen,” he said. “Ignoring the problem won’t help.”