NETWORKER NEWS; A River Runs through It: When a Community Tries Its Best and Fails, Then What?

By Cooper, Garry | Family Therapy Networker, July/August 1997 | Go to article overview

NETWORKER NEWS; A River Runs through It: When a Community Tries Its Best and Fails, Then What?


Cooper, Garry, Family Therapy Networker


People in North Dakota insist that the land is so flat, they can spot an anthill a half mile away. Local lore says that when it snows at night, by morning the wind has blown it all into South Dakota. But there was too much snow to blow away this year--74.6 inches of it, the fourth heaviest snowfall on record. Then the spring thaw, usually welcome, came rushing in too fast, and on April 19, when the melting waters breached the dam and roared over the makeshift dikes, at a record 22 feet above flood stage, they created an instant Dead Sea filled with floating furniture, automobiles and thousands of memories. The vast flooding destroyed so many homes that the people of Grand Forks and surrounding areas sought shelter with relatives and friends in more than 40 states, and weeks later, families were still trying to figure out how to get reunited and where to live. Three months have passed, and according to psychologist Rilla Anderson of Mayville State University, one of the Grand Forks evacuation centers, "If you look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs, we're still at the basic level of survival."

North Dakota remains one part of the country where therapists are generally thought of with some skepticism. "We're a kind of buckle up and do-what-you've-got-to-do state," says Bob Sanderson, director of the Northeast Human Service Center. The most frequent term used to describe the mental health care services being provided in the weeks following the disaster "was coffee klatch therapy"--going around to the shelters and later, as residents slowly returned to their homes, visiting door-to-door, informally checking in with people too frantic to stop and look inside themselves. "We're just letting people know we're here," says one therapist. "Later, when the other symptoms start, hopefully we can build on that initial contact." This kind of initial numbing happens after any disaster, but experts see something different in the Fargo/Grand Forks flooding. Unlike recent disasters--Hurricane Andrew, the Oklahoma bombing, the Northridge, California, earthquake, the Arkansas tornadoes--the flooding took weeks to unfold, so that by the time the waters finally inundated the community, everyone was already worn out, and the numbing is taking longer to dissipate. Psychologist Ann Looby,  mental health coordinator for the American Red Cross's disaster services, came to North Dakota directly from the Arkansas tornadoes. "In Arkansas 1,128 homes were immediately destroyed," she says, "but the people began bouncing back almost immediately. People here were already suffering from weeks of chronic stress before they got hit by the acute stress, and they haven't started recovering yet."

The citizens of Grand Forks had spent weeks sandbagging, trying to stave off the flood, first in warm weather, then in blizzards and sleet, and even as the struggle sapped their strength, it reinforced their sense of community. Playing off the cynicism so prevalent in other parts of the country, a local newspaper ran a caption underneath a photo of a brigade of sandbagging kids, which asked, "What Are Teenagers Good For?" Community spirit ran high. Psychologist Myron Veenstra, unit director for Adult and Family Services of Fargo's Northeast Human Service Center, after futilely trying to get exhausted sandbaggers and rescue workers to take a rest, finally decided to pass out stamped postcards, so that they would at least take a quick break and write to their families, many of whom had moved far away to safety. (The postcard that was requested most often had a picture of the river in normal times.) Then the Red River surged five feet above the predicted level, and in an instant, the weeks-long battle was lost, suddenly calling into question the Midwestern and Scandinavian ethic that hard work and community spirit can always save the day.

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