Mourning Paradise: Collective Trauma In A Town Destroyed

studies show.

“It’s the magnitude of a disaster that oftentimes can help us to predict how severe the mental health distress is going to be among affected populations,” said sociology professor Lori Peek, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

And in Paradise, the “magnitude of the disaster” was staggering.

Paradise officials report that 9 in 10 homes burned down in this middle- to low-income town popular with retirees.

“It’s been pretty traumatic,” said Elissa Crane, who lost the low-income rental she shared in Paradise with her husband and her disabled adult son. The family has been staying in an insurance-paid hotel since November as they search for an affordable apartment for themselves and their two cats. And now, with temporary housing insurance about to run out, they’re considering a permanent move to Idaho.

“We are animals and our nests are very important to us,” Rothbaum said. “One of the most stressful things you can do to an animal is mess up its nest.”

In the commotion of evacuating from Paradise, Holcomb lost a backpack containing her mother’s Bible, her grandfather’s Purple Heart medal from World War I and photographs of both of them. Thanks to a good Samaritan, she recovered the backpack containing the family treasures.(Michelle Camy for KHN)

Martha Bryant’s house was one of three remaining in a ravaged neighborhood. On her first visit back, she said, she failed to recognize her own house.

She continues to have nightmares; traffic jams trigger panic attacks.

“What I remember the most is just the sheer fear and panic and my heart pounding,” said Bryant, 60, a third-generation resident of Paradise. “Nobody was moving. And I was just screaming, ‘Move! Move! Get going! Move!’”

She said she knows she needs counseling, but life’s been too full of other decisions to seek it out.

In a 2017 study published in JAMA Psychiatry, Galea and colleagues found that one way to address the psychological consequences of disaster is through “stepped care,” which screens survivors as they move through the recovery process, “so that you can direct them to the care they need, when they have that need,” said Galea.

Providing regular mental health treatment — including practical approaches like cognitive behavior therapy — is one of two key steps to recovery. The other, Galea said, is through restoring a community’s social and economic functioning.

Sociologist Peek, who studied PTSD after Hurricane Katrina, said for those who want to return to Paradise, participation in community-wide conversations is essential.

Virtual town halls helped people displaced by the 2005 hurricane participate in the recovery, Peek said. “It was those moments of connection and the sense of cultural familiarity that sometimes made a big difference in terms of the emotional healing process,” she said.

The Town of Paradise Facebook page seems to be filling that role. In addition to providing notices about building regulations, safety issues and where to get free drinking water, it’s acting as a public forum where people can participate in live planning meetings and discussions about the town’s future. Social worker Linnea Duncan is part of a group of therapists offering free treatment for Paradise residents.

For Carol Holcomb, though, there will be no going home to Paradise. She is healing — getting treatment for PTSD symptoms and, thanks to a thoughtful person who put the backpack she’d left on the median back in her burned-out truck, she recovered some of her family’s treasures.

But Holcomb won’t rebuild, she said. She is instead looking for a home in a farming community with trees in orchards, which can resist a wildfire. “I can’t live in the forest again,” said Holcomb. “I just can’t.”

[email protected], @ReporterSteph

Related Topics

California Mental Health Public Health Natural Disasters

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