Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tsunami Warnings in the Pacific

As I write this, we are less than an hour away from a predicted tsunami hitting the islands of Hawaii.  An earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale struck off the coast of Chile last night and has sent waves as high as 8 feet across the Pacific. Hawaii is predicted to get something, although we don't know how bad it will be.  A tsunami warning has been issued, and beaches are being evacuated.  The west coast of the United States and Canada has a less dire tsunami advisory.

It has been said that the waiting is the hardest part.  In this instance, it depends very much on whether a tsunami actually hits and how big it is whether that will turn out to be true.  I can imagine this is fairly scary for small children, and depending on how well the evacuations are going, it might be pretty frightening to adults, too.  Presuming there is a tsunami, there may well be some work for CISM teams in Hawaii later this week.

Let me say that again -- Critical Incident Stress Management may well be needed later this week.  Not now.  Probably not later today.  After the tsunami hits, the damage is assessed and people can begin returning either to normal or a "new normal" it will be appropriate to address the traumatic stress.  The only thing anyone CISM trained or not should be doing for people's mental health right now is making sure they are fed and housed and that the shelter they are in is as safe as humanly possible, and then reassuring them of that.

But wait, I just said that kids in particular were probably scared.  Why shouldn't we be helping them deal with those feelings of fear?  Why shouldn't we break out the crayons and paper and start them drawing the evacuation?  Isn't early intervention a good thing?

The simple answer is that this traumatic incident isn't over.  In fact, if a tsunami does hit Hawaii, the incident has barely begun.  You can't help people process the experience of being afraid for their lives or their homes when they still have every reason to be afraid. 

CISM is designed to help people who have been traumatized, not those whose traumatization is currently in progress.  When I train school teams in CISM, I frequently tell them, "If there's a shooter in the school, I am not going to be asking you about your feelings.  I'm going to be hiding under my desk and I suggest you do the same."  Trying to process people's feelings right now is about as appropriate as going to the scene of a car accident where someone is bleeding profusely and trapped in their car and talking to them about coming to terms with their fear.  If they could deck you, they would.

In an hour or so, we'll have an idea of what Hawaii is actually dealing with.  Tomorrow I might have something to say about what CISM has to offer these folks.  For now, I just hope everyone stays safe.


Liz Ditz said...

I was glued to my twitter stream following old friends & new who live in Honolulu, Hilo, & coastside elsewhere in the islands.

Even if the tsunami had been more powerful (greater than 6 feet), my sense was that the people were calm and prepared. Listening to the governor speak, listening to various personnel (like the facilities manager of a high rise in the evacuation zone in Honolulu) -- the sense was very much of "Keep Calm and Carry On.

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