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Blog #27 - Back Home Again

March 11, 2006

It was very good to get back home again after this trip. This, my third Katrina assignment, had followed close on the heels of a three-week assignment at Red Cross National Headquarters in Washington, D.C. and it seemed like I had been gone forever. My plane was late in getting in and didn’t arrive until 10:00 p.m. on Wednesday, but it was still good to breath crisp Maine air again.

Thankfully both my wife Penny and my dog Colby remembered me, which was a good sign. And Carol and Ralph Brown were there also. Carol was more excited about the two Katrina dogs I had in the travel kennel than me, I think, but it was still good to see our neighbors. Ralph drove us home while Carol fussed over the two new dogs, and I just sat in the back seat of their van and dozed off. The road home was bumpy with frost heaves, but I didn’t feel a thing. Someone else was now in charge of both the dogs and the driving and all the air had been let out of my balloon.

Post-Assignment Blues

One of the out-processing steps from any disaster assignment is a short debriefing session with a mental health counselor. There is a pamphlet that gives you advice on the emotions that you might experience once you leave the frenetic and focused work you are doing on a disaster relief assignment and go “cold turkey” back to life in the normal world. It is not uncommon to experience fatigue, depression, insomnia, and/or a loss of appetite. One of the biggest disconnects is not having someone to talk with who has had a common experience. Returnees often find that their family and friends can’t relate to what they have been through and don’t seem to be appreciative. In a sense, returning disaster relief workers have similar emotional experiences as returning soldiers have.

This time I met more volunteers who had been on Katrina assignment for extended periods than I had met on my first assignment in Louisiana. One woman had been deployed since August 28, the day before Katrina hit and was still in the field. Several others had been deployed since November and December.

Also I met more volunteers who were on their second and third deployments to Katrina disaster relief efforts. This major motivator is the desire to help the Katrina victims, and having been on an assignment before these volunteers appreciate what still remains to be done. Even though the rest of the world has largely forgotten Katrina these volunteers have not and are taking the extra step to do what they can to help.

However, one of the mental health services staff cautioned me that there is a fine line between helping and an emotional addiction.

“To some volunteers disaster relief assignments are like adrenalin,” she said. “Just as a runner feels incomplete with his daily endorphins from running, some volunteers have an emotional need to be here and be personally involved. It can develop into an obsession.”

It could be that is why certain specialties are strictly restricted to a two-week assignment with no opportunity for extension. The experiences are too powerful and for the well being of the volunteer they need to have a break.

My first day home

It snowed all day my first day home and I slept away a good part of it. I had no ambition to do more than the minimum things that needed to get done. I made the mail run to the Sebago Post Office, stopped by the Elementary School to tell them about my trip to Jefferson Elementary in New Orleans, finished and submitted a story to the Portland Press Herald that was due, filed a grant payment request with FEMA for the Sebago Fire Department’s Aid to Firefighters Grant, and met with the Chief to go over bids for equipment. And I stopped off at the town office to collect the mail from my Selectman’s box and catch up on town gossip with the Town Clerk. Then I came home and had a nap.

Oh, and I did manage to get my dirty clothes from my bag into the clothes hamper, but the unpacked bag still sits in the living room. Perhaps I’ll get to it tomorrow. There’s nothing in it I need right away anyway.

At night I have been having variations on my “airport dream.” I’ve traveled a lot, but still am anxious before a trip. I set two alarm clocks. One is the electric one next to the bed, but I also set a mechanical alarm clock just in case the power goes out during the night. Like Jimmy Buffet I pack my bag the night before and lay out the clothes I’m going to travel in. And I usually have an “airport dream” which always involves some variation of me running to get to the airport, or running through the airport, and never getting there.

Once I get home I never have had “airport dreams.” However I have had a series of them since getting back from New Orleans. They are amusing in their variations but I always end up never quite getting to where I should be. Maybe somewhere in my head is a need to complete something, and this is my body’s way of reminding me of that.

Work to be done

One of the benefits of being a writer is that I can share my experiences with others through my stories. And people are very good at giving me feedback when I am lucky enough to strike a responsive cord with them with one of my stories. This assignment has been very rich in story material, and I’ve turned out quite a number and have probably a month of Katrina story writing ahead of me.

I don’t usually obsess about story deadlines, but perhaps subconsciously I am reminding myself that the stories about New Orleans and the rebuilding of Katrina victims are important and need to be told. During and after my first assignment to Louisiana in September and October I wrote a lot, but there were still a couple of stories that never made it from my notebook to paper. Perhaps I am trying to tell myself not to do that this time.

This will probably be the last blog I write for this Katrina assignment, but will continue to write for Red and the local newspapers. If you want to continue to read the things I turn out, log on to my website where all my Katrina stories are (or will be) posted:

Thank you all for reading my ramblings, and for all of your kind words. I urge you to each play a personal role in helping others when the next disaster strikes, either through the Red Cross or one of the other organizations that also do good things. And, as I was reminded by Ingrid in Bridgton, we don't need a disaster to help our neighbors. Be sensitive to the needs of the folks in your community and lend a hand when you can. We truly can make a difference, working together, and make this a better world for everyone.