In Moore, Oklahoma, where more than 12,000 people have lost their homes to the third devastating tornado there in 14 years, it is patience and hope that keeps people going as they rebuild their lives.
That is the sentiment from Pascale Vermont, an American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter disaster mental health volunteer from San Francisco, who has seen firsthand how Moore residents have been affected by the devastating EF-5 tornado in May.
“People are incredibly patient,” said the clinical psychologist who was also deployed twice to Red Cross disaster relief efforts in September 2012, to help people affected by a series of deadly tornadoes in Alabama and Hurricane Isaac in Mississippi. “They are clearly exhausted. They are at the end of their rope, but they are holding it together.”
Pascale says nearly 500 people are coming in each day to a multi-agency service center at Westmoore High School in south Oklahoma City—a school that was rebuilt by the community after a May 1999 three-day tornado outbreak that hit, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, Texas, and Tennessee.
The service center is one of four in the Oklahoma City metro area where Pascale is spending her days talking with people to help them learn coping strategies and receive mental health services. The center has brought together workers from 35 agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Catholic Charities, St. Vincent de Paul society, The Salvation Army, legal aid, and medical services.
The center also has an internet café, play area for children, and regular meals served.
“Everyday, there are more and more people,” Pascale says.
With wait times up to five hours or more, Pascale says anytime she sees an empty seat, she takes the chance to ask people about their experience and make sure they are holding up emotionally.
“People really do have a lot on their mind, and as time passes, some of the emotional consequences of the storm are coming to the surface,” said Pascale, who has a private practice in grief and loss issues and also worked in Haiti with Relief International in February 2010, just one month after the tragic 7.0 earthquake, providing grief counseling and training in French. “It is a good chance for them to talk to somebody. I find it within myself to just listen and help people the best I can.”
She said the sense of community and a desire to help is remarkable in Moore.
During a recent visit to Braum’s, a popular Moore restaurant, a man with three daughters came up to Pascale in her Red Cross vest, to say thank you. Even though the man and his family had not been affected directly by the tornado, he gave Pascale $20 in support of the Red Cross.
Back at the service center, Pascale recently saw a couple in their 70s holding babies while parents waited to receive help from the agencies and it was just “so sweet.”
People from nearby states, like Texas and Missouri, who aren’t affiliated with a particular organization but just want to help, are assisting with the search through the rubble of people’s destroyed homes, helping them look for items lost in the tornadoes, she said.
And even the youngest Oklahomans want to help. She said a 9-year-old at the center asked his mom who all of the people in red vests were. His mom told him they were all Red Cross volunteers and he asked if he could help as a volunteer, too.
“You hear stories like that and it is just so inspiring and wonderful,” she said. “It’s those people turning things around, and finding something positive, that is compelling about this experience.”
Listening and talking with people all day does “take a lot of mental energy,” says Pascale. She helps people understand that what they are feeling is a normal part of the healing process and refers them to more comprehensive long-term services if needed. She says she follows-up with people throughout the day to make sure they are getting what they need.
“I am exhausted at the end of the day, but I am ready to go again,” she said. “I always leave the day feeling quite full and gratified.”