When Hurricane Sandy slammed into New York and New Jersey, daily life became uncertain and unpredictable for residents and businesses damaged in dramatic ways from which they have still not recovered. Long Beach NY resident Judith Pullman, a clinical social worker with a private practice in Rockville Center, New York who was evacuated before the storm and is currently scheduled to return home March 1 is living a kind of improvised existence, calling upon all the creative resources this requires. She knows the March 1 return-home date could change, and the instability wrought by this storm is something she has embraced as a way of increasing her psychological resilience. “I've moved approximately seven times,” she reports. “I decided to learn about and explore each area, making lemonade out of lemons. Although it was scary and terrifying at times, I felt like I was having a great adventure. I worked on reframing the experience and seeing some larger opportunity. I lived in somebody's home in Fresh Meadows and visited the Queens Museum, Flushing-a great commercial hub, and my Alma Mata, Queens College. Queens has an enviable bus system that I used to travel to Manhattan.”
Even with that remarkable attitude toward the stressful realities of constant change and the frustrations of dealing with FEMA – she reports that out of approximately 40 hours speaking with FEMA workers “about 2 hours were productive" – it is a difficult road. There are many New York and New Jersey residents and business owners who must continue to work and sustain some degree of balance in life while coping with long-term displacement. Pullman states that when responding to their needs, "offers of practical assistance are more important than empathy. 'You can always sleep here’ is more helpful than someone saying ‘you’re always in my thoughts.’”
Practical assistance is the visible, evident expression of the intangible connections that create community and social networks. Filmmaker Andrew Pearson’s new work-in-progress LANDFALL: The Eyes of Sandy looks at the effect of Superstorm Sandy on communities through a chronicle of its approach to New Jersey's Long Beach Island and on the powerful community approach to rebuilding after the storm. "The film captures the roller coaster of emotions that families, first responders, business owners and non-profits experienced post-Sandy through the eyes of the individuals who were deeply affected," according to the Jetty Rock Foundation, "a 501 (C) 3 charitable organization created with the goal of continuing to aid the families, first responders, businesses and non-profits with long-term needs post-Sandy." Pearson filmed the actual storm in real time and is currently filming interviews with first responders, local business owners and residents who continue to support one another through the long tough process of rebuilding. The powerful trailer and lively blog posts documenting the production crew's experiences reveal the power of what can happen when people support one another. And this film directly benefits those whose story it tells, as all proceeds from the film will benefit The Jetty Rock Foundation.
What is broken in the tangible world can be rebuilt, although as the post-Sandy stories show, rebuilding can be a long slog through a messy and sometimes cold reality. What keeps us going are the connections between people forged through the stories we tell and our openness to listening. We are all co-creating our environment through our responses to events and circumstances, borne out in Pearson's storytelling, in the Long Beach Island community and thousands of others reinforcing one another's individual strengths while pooling their resources, and in the small, intimate groups we know we can turn to in our personal struggles.
A single woman whose extended family is in California, Pullman reports that she “ found support through 'random acts of kindness' from others as well as a solid group of reliable friends that could be counted on to help with problem-solving. “When I was asked to leave my first motel as a result of a residency rule I felt overwhelmed. One office mate took out the phone book and found me another motel with vacancies. One friend let me stay in her New York apartment when she traveled to Israel. One cooperator from my building gave me a battery operated radio because she knew I lived alone. I had a support group of five to seven people who called me every week and brainstormed with me.” As a psychotherapist, Pullman relates to the situation both the professional and personal roles. As a therapist, she recommends a “strengths-based perspective” when reaching out to or working with a survivor of disaster. “After bearing witness to the survivor’s story, “she explains, “look for and acknowledge the person’s strengths. Every experience is unique, so be careful about making assumptions.”And as her personal story bears witness, resilience and relationships are the raw materials for rebuilding after a life is disrupted.
Jude Treder-Wolff is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. Follow her on Twitter: @JuTrWolff.