At one point, it was very convenient to throw a “Cup o’ soup”, an apple, and a piece of cheese in my briefcase everyday for lunch. After about a year of that I noticed I couldn’t tell the difference between the ramen in the cup o’ soup and the styrofoam cup itself.
Burnout can occur in any activity. Ideally, you move on to something else. In a worst case, there are no alternatives and depression takes hold. The ” traumatic stress” in post traumatic stress disorder can be the stress of inescapable burnout.
In my life, I have had the opportunity to turn the page. I know how to pace myself both physically and emotionally. In the case of natural disaster victims, there are no choices. The same can apply to the volunteers helping at disasters. Some can pace themselves, some burnout and step away, and some are so invested that they cannot step away.
The victims of superstorm Sandy are still dealing with the effects of the storm, which occurred 29 October 2012, over eight months ago.
Mantoloking was one of the locations where the bay met the ocean, eliminating the island and everything on it. The flooding was widespread, most of the island submerged for days.
When the water receded, the cleanup began. First were the volunteers just bringing in food. In some locations broken gas lines caused fires, and entire neighborhoods burned. Keep in mind, it was the beginning of November in the Northeast, sleeping in a tent in the backyard (if the backyard doesn’t have someone elses house in it) was out of the question.
Find a place in this story and try and imagine it. Your home is gone. Your street is gone. Your employer is gone. Everything you own is gone. You’re a volunteer and the lines of needy are unending. You need to get back to your own home which suffered some damage even though you live fifty miles from the shore. You need to get back to your job, but the victims are still hungry, homeless, and seemingly infinite.
Give it a few months, It’s January in New Jersey. The Red Cross has finished its emergency mission and moved on. Local volunteers are exhausted, the strong ones are still coming on the weekends. The carpet baggers have been through, scamming those with insurance out of their settlements. It’s cold and desolate, and the things that usually get you through this time of year are somewhere in the Atlantic. Depending on where you had lived, you are now in either a deserted neighborhood plagued by looters, a temporary shelter because your house was destroyed, or in a temporary shelter because you have not yet been allowed to return to your neighborhood. Merry Christmas.
Two months later now. February. You’ve been allowed to return to your neighborhood, to find your home A) one of the isolated surviving structures, filled with moldy furniture and clothing, several inches of mud in your living room, and all of your electronics destroyed, B) Damaged but repairable, but all of your possessions are gone or destroyed, C) Damaged beyond repair, or D) Missing. Either way, you still owe your property taxes for the year. Depending on your home loan and insurance, you may have to elevate your home to rebuild and receive flood insurance. Elevating a home is expensive and there are only a few contractors who can do it. There are several con artists who will take your money, and if you’re lucky they’ll run. If you’re not lucky they’ll start the work and destroy what was left of your home.
Two more months. April. You haven’t been able to work since Halloween, but your taxes are due. The weather is getting better, you’re thinking about the tourist season, and if there will be any tourists. The motels are packed with workers rebuilding the businesses, where are the tourists and seasonal workers going to stay? It’s been six months since the storm, the volunteers are thinning out, getting on with their lives. In the rest of he world their are other natural disasters, you fade from public memory. The politicians who had been praised for quick responses during the emergency are now being blamed for not draining the ocean.
June arrives. The boardwalk has been rebuilt (not in your neighborhood, but at the amusement piers), but most of the beaches can’t open. Many of the damaged homes were rental properties, and the hotels are still full of construction workers, so there is little overnight tourism, and the weather isn’t the very best it could be. The complaints are starting to increase, a snowball effect that slows everything. Most of the residential streets still aren’t clear, and even the main roads are still detoured. A line of hurricanes in Oklahoma last month have erased the effects of Sandy from the public mind as they race to assist those victims. Still, houses on your block are mere piles of rubble, and the wait for building permits from an overwhelmed inspection office is months long.
August, the height of tourist season. You’re at the end of the block, because the five houses closer to the beach have finally been removed. The street ends next door, even though it used to run another hundred yard to intersect with another street, which was last seen last fall. A couple of other houses have been finished, standing out starkly on the moonscape that was once your neighborhood. Because your street is now a cul-de-sac, it is blocked off at the main road. The volunteers are gone, although sometimes on the weekends people come through to clean up a lot. The police still patrol constantly as looters still search for anything of value. You’re paying property taxes on a property that you can neither inhabit nor sell.
Mid September. After a lackluster tourist season, a fire breaks out on the boardwalk. Fifty four businesses that were barely breaking even are destroyed. Several blocks of boardwalk burn, and the progress of the fire is slowed by tearing out sections of new boardwalk.
Do you throw in the towel? If you have one?
Not if this is your home.
You weather it out. The people stand together, pick up the pieces, and continue to rebuild. The residents from the shore, the volunteers from all over the state, and the friends of these people are a family. Family doesn’t give up.
This last week a former New Jersey resident brought his friends from Iowa and Ohio, met up with friends from High School, and made new friends rebuilding houses and clearing lots at the shore. We saw desperation and burnout, and the joy that fresh faces bring.
We are family. Not because of our parents or our homes, but because of our spirits. The team that met forty years ago in New Providence brought hope to Ortley Beach, a commodity much more precious than hammers and nails. Our payment was far more valuable than the lodging and meals that were graciously provided. Our payment was the joy that we brought and shared with the people of Ortley Beach.
There’s still work to be done, come on down and join the family.