Mary Ponder knows the stress, anxiety and powerlessness that grows in communities after a disaster. She saw it following the Christchurch earthquakes and sees it now after the Westport flood. “In Christchurch you saw the accumulation of stress, tiredness and shock in people’s faces. In Westport, at the moment, I am starting to see that same look.”

The Road to Recovery workshops starting on October 31 aim to help people manage the emotional fallout and the community rebuild its resilience. Supported by the Westport Ministers Association, the sessions are for the whole community. “These are not religious workshops. They are about being with people and listening and learning.”

Mary, who moved from Christchurch to Westport two years ago with her husband Keith, was a counsellor in 2011. She created workshops to give earthquake-affected people the tools to cope mentally and emotionally. Seeing the same need in her new community, the Westport Elim Church pastor revived the idea. Attendees will learn to identify their individual responses to stress and provide physical and mental techniques to help deal with it, she says. “The accumulation of stress has emotional and physical effects. People can feel tired, irritable, and frustrated.”

She is concerned for those now facing a long wait for their homes to be repaired while living with extended family or in temporary housing. “People do need their own space and over time these situations can build a lot of frustrations.” Having techniques which promote self care and rebuild hope will mean people are better placed to emotionally deal with their situations, she says.

Disaster recovery phases
When disaster hits, the initial reaction is for people to move fast to help each other out – what Mary describes as the heroic phase. That is followed by a ‘honeymoon’ where the community continues to come together to help and support each other. Mary believes Westport is heading into the next phase of disasters – disillusionment. Once outside support begins to fall away, people still in the midst of crisis feel isolated and powerless. Many things are out of an individual’s control, whether that is insurance, the availability of builders or regulatory decisions.

The Covid-19 Delta variant outbreak hasn’t helped. Nationally and even regionally, the focus has shifted to the Covid response, Mary says. Alert level restrictions have delayed steps people were beginning to take to get their lives back on track. “People are starting to look around and are questioning what is happening, why others have repairs underway and they don’t. Why they aren’t moving on when others seem to be.”

It is important to realise these thoughts and emotions are normal, Mary says. Identifying stresses which have built up – including the first Covid lockdown last year – is a step towards knowing how to deal with them, she says. “We did see an escalation in domestic violence and relationship issues in the Christchurch earthquakes, which are typical fallout of disasters as the weeks and months go on” Mary says. “The workshops will give people some tools to help deescalate situations.”

People can experience grief and loss of all sorts following both natural and man made disasters, from the loss of possessions to loss of hope, security, familiarity and dignity. It is important to process this grief and to adjust to the changes that the flood has brought. “We must all find our own way to manage what is happening for us as well as supporting those around us to manage in their own ways.”

The first Road to Recovery workshop will be held at the St John’s Anglican Church at 3 pm on October 31.
To register call Mary on 027 666 2964 or 789 7209.

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