Past disasters show how evacuees rebuild and recover, psychologists say

People who have left their homes amid flames and devastation in Fort McMurray, Alta., can find some hope and support, a psychologist says, by considering the experience of other Canadian communities that have rebuilt after wildfires.

Fort McMurray residents are feeling fear and incredible stress, but rebuilding can be therapeutic

Almost one-third of Kelowna, B.C.'s population were forced to leave ahead of advancing fires in 2003. Giving children some measure of a normal routine during a traumatic dislocation can help. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

People who have left their homes amid flames and devastation in Fort McMurray, Alta., can find some hope and support, a psychologist says, by considering the experience of other Canadian communities that have rebuilt after wildfires.

A massive, unpredictable fire is a traumatic event, and the evacuation touches everyone in the community, said Prof. Robin Cox, the graduate program leader in disaster and emergency management at Royal Roads University in Victoria.

Cox, a psychologist and clinical counsellor, studied disaster recovery following the August 2003 McLure forest fire in B.C. that destroyed more than 70 homes and businesses and forced the evacuation of 3,800 people from their homes north of Kamloops. 

As in Fort McMurray, the August and September 2003 Kamloops wildfires threatened suburban homes following a heat wave and dry conditions.

Lessons from the McLure fire, such as the need for greater transparency to dispel rumours, have dramatically changed how emergencies are handled. Information is the No. 1 thing evacuees seek, and it's important to help them manage the uncertainty once they are safe, she said.

"It's normal in a situation like this to feel incredibly stressed, fearful, upset," Cox said. "It's also very common for the best part of humanity to come out. There will be a strong sense of community of caring and connection amongst those who've been evacuated and some people who are offering them help."

Sociologists say the fear invoked by a disaster varies with uncertainty and the cause. For communities, the focus on rebuilding after a natural disaster can be therapeutic. 

A flower blooms amid the devastation left from fire that swept into Slave Lake, Alta., in 2011. The community changed as people recovered both materially and psychologically. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

In a 2011 paper published in the American Journal of Community Psychology, Cox described how McClure-area residents returned to a landscape transformed from green hills and forests to scorched ground and trees like blackened tooth-picks.

Residents described a sense of disorientation as they sat in hotels and evacuation centres waiting for word on the fate of their homes. As one resident in the hardest hit community of Louis Creek put it, "It's not just your house, it's your heart that's lost."

After the helplessness came physical and symbolic reconstruction, as residents shared their suffering and banded together to rebuild homes and their sense of community. People gained solace from a return to normalcy as squirrels returned to gardens, but there were also everyday reminders of loss, from something as simple as baking a cake from a new, unfamiliar recipe book. 

Survivors of disasters such as fire and flood also point to how the altered landscape compounds the emotional impact, a 2014 study in the Australian Journal of Emergency Management suggested. 

For now, Cox suggests evacuees be gentle with themselves and each other, to be patient in a difficult time and to prepare for their eventual return by recognizing that the recovery and rebuilding will be a marathon, not a sprint.

The American Psychological Association says that once the initial shock of a natural disaster subsides, there are some common reactions:

  • Feelings become intense and sometimes unpredictable.
  • Thoughts and behaviour patterns are affected, such as repeated and vivid memories of seeing a fire approach.
  • Reminders such as smoke, ash or sirens can create anxiety.
  • Interpersonal relationships can become strained, particularly while living in temporary housing.
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea and chest pain may accompany the extreme stress and may require medical attention.

Reassure children

Children may revert back to younger behaviours, psychologists say. Giving child evacuees some measure of normalcy, such as gathering together for breakfast or play time when possible, is encouraged, Cox said.

Young people often want to help and can feel excluded. Yet finding ways to allow them to contribute their skills during an evacuation, return and recovery period is healing, she suggested. 

Parents should ask about how younger family members are feeling and give information, context and reassurance while limiting kids' exposure to devastating images.

"It is the recovery and the rebuilding that is the longest part of it and can be equally or more stressful for people."

The Slave Lake, Alta., wildfire of 2011 and the flood in High River, Alta., and Calgary in 2013 offer some hope for how people recover materially and psychologically following disasters.

"People do come through, and as much as it's a devastating thing, good things will eventually come from this as the community pulls together and finds its way back," Cox said.

But research in Canada and in other countries shows people who are vulnerable economically, emotionally or socially may need more help after a disaster.

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