“When the landslide hit, we weren’t really sure what we would be getting into,” said Jerry Schaffer, a Red Cross disaster mental health specialist from Athens, Ohio. He noted that the Washington landslide was unlike the other emergency response deployments, such as Hurricane Katrina and Super Storm Sandy, which impacted huge areas. “This disaster was different, it was so localized and it had utterly devastated a small community.”
As the director of a geriatric mental health program, his first concern was for the elderly, in nursing homes or who were homebound. They are often overlooked because people assume they are already in a safe place, he explained: “They are isolated, but they watch TV; they want to help but they feel helpless to do so.”
The disaster led to other complicating factors for the elderly. The state highway was buried, creating a long, difficult detour and preventing some senior assistants and health aides from getting to their clients. Jerry felt it would be important to focus on the elderly, a vulnerable population, right away and quickly sought connections to them through key members of the community. “I spent time at the senior center and visited with people at smaller nursing home facilities,” and Jerry tried to ensure that they were connected with resources.
At first, there was considerable confusion over the number of people missing in the disaster. Numbers were high. “The anxiety was palpable, so you have to help people express their fears and work through it,” Jerry explained. He also understood that the people providing care for the elderly were themselves impacted.
Going into any disaster response, Jerry has his guidelines: Don’t forget the nursing homes, the senior housing projects, the homebound, and don’t forget the staff. “It's an important perspective that I try to bring to my volunteer work and I think I’m reaching people who are really struggling.”