Holly Richardson: They are called ‘disasters’ for a reason

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Smokey skies near Woodland Hills are preventing the air attack on the Pole Creek fire, Friday, Sept. 14, 2018.

After multiple seasons of naturals disasters — fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and volcanoes — it can become easy to become somewhat numb and even start to shrug them off as “normal.”

But they are not normal.

They are called “disasters” for a reason and they come with a hefty cost. Some of it is financial, of course — to individuals, communities and even nations. There are also costs in physical, mental and emotional health. There are time costs for people affected, in the moment and down the road. Getting back to a new normal takes time and effort that would have been used for other things — jobs, church, family — all may get the short end of the stick.

When disasters hit close to home, though, we are suddenly no longer “numb” and the very real danger comes into clear focus.

When the Pole Creek Fire grew to 54,000 acres Thursday evening and into Friday morning, it felt like a personal attack on my friends that live in Woodland Hills and who are under a mandatory evacuation order. How dare that fire threaten them?!

The Pole Creek Fire, just one-half acre a couple of days ago, is still growing. A second fire, the Bald Mountain fire at almost 15,000 acres, is growing as well and the two are threatening to merge. Seventy thousand burning acres are filling Utah County and parts of Salt Lake County with smoke and the smell of fire, miles away from the actual fire.

The bright spots in any disaster are the helpers. They’re everywhere! State Sen. Deidre Henderson, who has spent hours and hours at the Pole Fire Command Center told me, “The outpouring of support and concern has been tremendous. More community members showed up at Salem Hills High School to offer their homes to evacuees than there were evacuees who needed a place to stay.”

Woodland Hills City Councilmember Kari Malkovich quipped “Who needs the Red Cross when you have Utah citizens?!”

When you can see fire and heavy smoke from your own home, it becomes a lot more personal. I know I’m not the only one who has spent some time over the last day or two to wonder what we would grab if we needed to evacuate. What if we had a day or two’s notice, like with Hurricane Florence? What if we only had a couple of hours, like with the fires? What if I were not a home but across the state? The nation? The world? Can I admit that in spite of having food storage, our family has no evacuation plan? It feels a lot more urgent to get to work on that.

The Utah fires are still burning but at some point those fires will be out. In many ways, that is when the real work begins. The good news is, most of us are pretty resilient and over time, most disaster survivors adjust relatively quickly to a “new normal.”

But, it’s not usually immediate and that’s OK. According to the American Psychological Association, it is common for people to feel “stunned, disoriented and unable to integrate distressing information” at the time of the disaster. Once those feelings of shock begin to subside, other responses begin to surface. They can include intense or unpredictable feelings, including grief. Being grateful to be alive doesn’t negate grief at what was lost. Conflicting emotions can also co-exist: gratitude and grief, relief and rage, faith and fear.

After the initial high stress disaster, survivors can experience changes in sleeping and eating patterns, sensitivity to outside factors, like sirens, thunder and lightning or even campfire smoke which can trigger an intense fear response. Disaster survivors might experience moodiness and irritability towards family, friends and co-workers, especially those who expect them to be “over it” before they are ready.

We all need each other. Utahns have the opportunity to help their neighbors, now and in the future. John Greenleaf Whittier perhaps said it best: I'll lift you and you lift me, and we'll both ascend together.

(Photo Courtesy Holly Richardson)

Holly Richardson is a regular Salt Lake Tribune contributor and is terribly worried about the toll this year’s disasters are taking.