After Oso: The Emotional Phases Of A Disaster

May 9, 2014

Aid agencies are reducing their presence in Oso and Darrington, a month and a half after a landslide hit the small community there, killing at least 41.

FEMA says visits to its federal disaster recovery centers have decreased, so the centers are closing Saturday. Snohomish County, which once operated from many outposts, now has a single  information office in Darrington.

The closures are another step toward normal and part of the post-disaster script. But disasters unfold in emotional phases. A textbook from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services describes it. And Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert told KUOW Public Radio that the diagram explains much about the pattern of recovery she has seen near Oso.

After the initial shock, there's what's known as a heroic period. In the days after the landslide people rushed to try and dig survivors out of the mud. Two days after the slide, Darrington Mmayor Dan Rankin tried to caution people about the dangers of "going in there somewhat rogue."
   

The feeling of disillusionment can go on for longer than a year.

“We don’t know how many people are in there, we don’t know how many people come back out,” Rankin said. The mayor made those comments just as the outside world began to flood in aid. According to the textbook, this is the honeymoon, a period of community bonding.

In Darrington, people gathered at the grocery store for days after the slide. A spirit of togetherness took hold. Taylor Lindeman and Lindsay Fabri, two high schoolers, said their community "is so close. We’re just one big family. So when one person goes — part of our town’s missing.”

During the honeymoon, people think things will be better when help comes, but the next stage is disillusionment. That's when people start to realize the limits of aid.

That too was visible after the Oso slide. About half the adults in Darrington work outside the town. The closure of Highway 530 meant many commutes were three to four hours longer every day. The cost of gas and wear on their cars was also a blow.

The aid community responded by providing financial assistance to buy gas. However, people found trying to obtain a gas card was hard work. At the Darrington Community center, people crowded a hallway in early afternoon, waiting for the daily process to begin. At this hour, many people who commuted out of town for work were long gone.

Some of those who could wait in line said they had waited for help in the past, only to be told to come back another day. Francis Ames said she tried getting a gas card from another organization when she needed to drive a friend to hospital for surgery. She said she went back at the appointed time and no one was there.

“It’s really tough when I have to use my extra food money, especially when you take them for their word and they’re not here to give you gas money," Ames said. "It's not right. I just want them to keep their word.”

This, too, is textbook. Disasters are chaotic, with many volunteers, agencies and governments involved. And despite the community's access to a bypass around Highway 530, and the promise of highway repairs,  the feeling of disillusionment can go on for longer than a year.

Now governments and aid groups are reducing their presence. The textbook says that can lead to feelings of abandonment in the community. But the phase after that is emotional rebuilding. When people come to see meaning in what happened to them, it says, that’s when they’re on the road to recovery.