Recovering from the Ottawa tornadoes

7 MIN READ

When we face major weather events, recovery means more than meeting immediate food and shelter needs. For those who have lost so much, the toll is often not only short-term but also long-term, with long-lasting financial, social and emotional dimensions.[i]

United Way is committed to continue our work with After the Storm partners—identifying needs and organizing resources in a way that most effectively supports our community now, and in the future.

By Paul Steeves

Sr. Manager of Research and Evaluation, Community Services and Paula Quig, Researcher, Community Initiatives

Hidden impacts of disaster

The tornadoes which struck our region on September 21 demolished homes, overturned cars, felled power lines, devastated businesses, and left many individuals with serious injuries— some life-threatening. This is the damage we all learned about on the news and on social media in the hours and days immediately following the storm. In some cases this is also the destruction we witnessed firsthand.

The damage that is less visible, however, is the long-term impact of the storm.

It’s human nature to focus on more visible needs in the wake of a natural disaster like a tornado. There’s an immediate need to seek urgent medical help, locate loved ones, ensure that victims have food and shelter, restore power, clean up debris and repair those homes and business that can actually be fixed.

However, only with time can we actually appreciate the true extent of the damage a violent storm has left behind – the emotional and financial impacts, and how communities have been fundamentally changed.

Only with time can we rebuild and truly recover.

This is the damage that will take much longer to heal.

We know that individuals who have experienced major trauma such as a tornado may develop increased anxiety, nervousness, depression, panic-disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)[ii] in the weeks, and even months, after a disaster has occurred.[iii]

Who is most at risk, and how?

So what can we do now and into the future to help?  And who needs our help the most?

Some groups are particularly vulnerable to these outcomes. A higher prevalence of PTSD following a natural disaster has been reported among those most directly or heavily affected by the disaster[iv], including rescue workers[v]women[vi], children and youth[vii]seniors;[viii] those with pre-existing or related psychiatric conditions[ix]; and those who have previously experienced traumatic events.[x] Studies have also found that those at greater risk of experiencing psychological symptoms after a natural disaster include individuals or families living in low income situations[xi].

In addition to emotional and mental trauma, natural disasters like tornadoes cause major financial loss and stress to individuals and families, particularly those who were already struggling just to get by.

A tornado can destroy an entire house in just moments, leaving families homeless and financially stressed, sometimes for months or even years into the future. Even where individuals have insurance policies that will cover the damage done to their homes and personal property, they incur expenses related to renting temporary accommodations, and increased insurance premiums after disaster payout.

Entire businesses can also be lost or severely damaged. For those who depend on these businesses for their livelihoods and to support their families, such losses can be life-changing.

It is important to have accessible social and emotional supports not only in the weeks after a major weather event but also for many months after.

The number of individuals seeking mental health services after a major weather event such as a tornado has been known to increase dramatically—as was experienced by the United Way of Central Oklahoma, when more than 20,000 people in central Oklahoma sought mental health services after a series of May 2013 tornadoes [xii].

Mental health supports are not only needed in the days immediately following a tornado. In many cases it can be months after a tornado hits before some individuals actually realize they are suffering severe emotional trauma and need to reach out for help.

United Way Ottawa has put together an interactive map that shows the disaster response areas outlined by the Provincial Government, how many vulnerable people might be at risk, who they are and where they’re located. This serves not only as an important illustration of the impact, but also a tool to help us and the After the Storm Partners identify needs and organize resources in a way that most effectively supports our community.

Click on either image to explore each area’s population in detail

Dunrobin/Kinburn disaster response area

Neighbourhoods Forever Changed

The tornadoes that ripped through our region have also transformed the landscape of entire neighborhoods.

Arlington Woods is one example. This neighborhood, once a “forest in the city”[xiii], has been radically transformed—now resembling more of a logging camp after the devastation than a forested community. In communities like Dunrobin/Kinburn, we’ve seen entire houses and businesses destroyed, forever changing the look and feel of these areas. In the Greenboro area, many homes suffered major damage that will take significant time and money to repair.

Grieving these losses and moving ahead with the vital work of rebuilding and revitalizing all the communities affected by the storm will take time and will require that essential supports remain in the long-term for those in need.

South Ottawa disaster response area

Resiliency: Neighbours helping neighbours, strangers helping strangers

What we can see now is that those individuals and communities most affected by the storm have shown amazing resiliency. We have heard the stories of neighbors supporting each other through this most difficult time, and of complete strangers stepping forward to volunteer their time in the hopes that they might be able to help in at least some way.

But once the power has been restored, the debris has been cleared, and urgent needs such as for food and shelter have been addressed, there’s a risk—and natural tendency—for people to move on. We think back to these stories and we think:  Our work is done.  Life will return to normal.  Everything is going to be okay.

This may be true in time – but time can be months, or even years.

The reality is that the full extent of the mental, financial, and social impacts of a natural disaster take much longer to address.[xiv]

The Road Ahead

The long-term impacts of a tornado will continue to be felt long after immediate, crisis needs have been met—particularly among those that are most vulnerable: rescue workers, women, children and youth, seniors, those with pre-existing and related psychiatric conditions, those with previous experiences with trauma, and individuals and families in lower income situations.

The social and mental supports that individuals and families are able to receive in the months ahead will be absolutely crucial to long-term recovery—to their ability to rebuild their lives, and their communities.

[i] See Galea, S., Nandi, A, and Vlahov, D.  The Epidemiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Disasters.  Epidemiologic Reviews, Volume 27, Issue 1, 1 July 2005, Pages 78-91.  Available online at https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/27/1/78/520813 ; Freedy, John R. (MD, PhD), Simpson, W.M. (MD)  Disaster-Related Physical and Mental Health:  A Role for the Family Physician.  American Family Physician.  2007 Mar 15:75(6): 841-846.  Available online at https://www.aafp.org/afp/2007/0315/p841.html

[ii] See Galea, S., Nandi, A, and Vlahov, D.  The Epidemiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Disasters.  Epidemiologic Reviews, Volume 27, Issue 1, 1 July 2005, Pages 78-91.  Available online at https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/27/1/78/520813; Madakasira, S., O’Brien, K.F. Acute posttraumatic stress disorder in victims of a natural disaster.  1987.  Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 175(5), 286-290. Available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3572380

[iii] See generally La Greca, A. Silverman, W.K., Vernberg, E.M. Prinstein M.J.  Symptoms of posttraumatic stress in children after Hurricane Andrew: a prospective study.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.  1996 Aug; 64(4): 712-723. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8803361/ ; Freedy, John R. (MD, PhD), Simpson, W.M. (MD) Disaster-Related Physical and Mental Health:  A Role for the Family Physician.  American Family Physician.  2007 Mar 15:75(6): 841-846.  Available online at https://www.aafp.org/afp/2007/0315/p841.html

[iv] See Galea, S., Nandi, A, and Vlahov, D.  The Epidemiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Disasters.  Epidemiologic Reviews, Volume 27, Issue 1, 1 July 2005, Pages 78-91.  Available online at https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/27/1/78/520813

[v] See Galea, S., Nandi, A, and Vlahov, D.  The Epidemiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Disasters.  Epidemiologic Reviews, Volume 27, Issue 1, 1 July 2005, Pages 78-91.  Available online at https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/27/1/78/520813

[vi] Galea, S., Nandi, A, and Vlahov, D.  The Epidemiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Disasters.  Epidemiologic Reviews, Volume 27, Issue 1, 1 July 2005, Pages 78-91.  Available online at https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/27/1/78/520813

[vii] Paul, L.A., Felton, J.W., Adams, A.W., Welsh, K., Miller, S., Ruggiero, K.J.  Mental Health Among Adolescents Exposed to a Tornado:  The Influence of Social Support and its Interactions with Socio-Demographic Characteristics and Disaster Exposure.  Journal of Traumatic Stress. 2015 Jun; 28(3): 232-239.  Available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4465037/   The authors note that youth are at particular risk for postdisaster distress because they are less equipped to cope with disasters than adults due to less well-developed coping skills and social and materials resources, citing Garnefski, N., Legerstee, J., Kraaij, V., van den Kommer, T., Teerds, J.  Cognitive coping strategies and symptoms of depression and anxiety:  A comparison between adolescents and adults.  Journal of Adolescence.  2002; 25: 603-611. See also Alonzo, B. What Are the Long-Term Effects of Tornadoes? Sciencing. Available online at https://sciencing.com/longterm-effects-tornadoes-12321830.html. ; Galea, S., Nandi, A, and Vlahov, D.  The Epidemiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Disasters.  Epidemiologic Reviews, Volume 27, Issue 1, 1 July 2005, Pages 78-91.  Available online at https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/27/1/78/520813 ; La Greca, A., Silverman, W.K., Vernberg, E.M., Prinstein, M.J.  Symptoms of posttraumatic stress in children after Hurricane Andrew:  a prospective study.  Journal of Consulting Clinial Psychology.  1996 Aug; 64(4): 712-23.  Available online at  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8803361

[viii] Phifer, James F.  Psychological distress and somatic symptoms after natural disaster:  Differential vulnerability among older adults.  Psychology and Aging, Vol. 5(3), September 1990, 412-420.  Available online at http://psycnet.apa.org/buy/1991-01336-001.

[ix] See Galea, S., Nandi, A, and Vlahov, D.  The Epidemiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Disasters.  Epidemiologic Reviews, Volume 27, Issue 1, 1 July 2005, Pages 78-91.  Available online at https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/27/1/78/520813

[x] See Galea, S., Nandi, A, and Vlahov, D.  The Epidemiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Disasters.  Epidemiologic Reviews, Volume 27, Issue 1, 1 July 2005, Pages 78-91.  Available online at https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/27/1/78/520813

[xi] See Galea, S., Nandi, A, and Vlahov, D.  The Epidemiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Disasters.  Epidemiologic Reviews, Volume 27, Issue 1, 1 July 2005, Pages 78-91.  Available online at https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/27/1/78/520813

[xii] United Way of Central Oklahoma.  Vital Signs:  Central Oklahoma Priorities:  Mental Health and Substance Abuse.  Volume III, Edition I.  December 2015.  Available Online at http://www.unitedwayokc.org/sites/default/files/files/REAL_Vital%20Signs%20Vol%203_Ed1%20heather.pdf

[xiii] Purdon, N., Palleja, L.  ‘It’s like a personal injury’:  Tornado takes emotional toll on Ottawa neighborhood.  Available online at https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/national-ottawa-gatineau-tornado-rebuild-arlington-woods-1.4820820

[xiv] See Seabol, L. Disasters can have long-term mental impact. 2012. Available online at https://www.tuscaloosanews.com/news/20120429/disasters-can-have-long-term-mental-impact ; Freedy, John R. (MD, PhD), Simpson, W.M. (MD) Disaster-Related Physical and Mental Health:  A Role for the Family Physician.  American Family Physician.  2007 Mar 15:75(6): 841-846.  Available online at https://www.aafp.org/afp/2007/0315/p841.html

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During the 19th annual Community Builder of the Year Awards, Erin Benjamin received the Ambassador Award for her leadership in the music industry as well as being a leader in the Ottawa tornado relief efforts.

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