After a disaster like Juneau’s August flood, mental health can be a neglected part of the recovery

a condo
A house and condo buildings hang precariously over the Mendenhall River after their foundations were eroded away during record high water from a glacial outburst flood on Aug. 5, 2023. (Mikko Wilson/KTOO)

One of the worst days of Molly Barnes’ life went viral.

As the Mendenhall River carved the land out from under her condo building during August’s glacial outburst flood, videos of the destruction flooded the internet.

“I haven’t even been able to watch. I’ve tried twice, but it makes me physically sick,” Barnes said. “I’m definitely still affected by it.”

A month later, the loss is still surreal, and heartbreaking. 

Margaret Wellberg, a Red Cross therapist who has taken on clients affected by the Juneau flood, said many people who experience a disaster feel a grief that lasts for weeks, months and even years.

“We’re hearing the guilt, the anger over the damage and loss,” Wellberg said. “And then, there’s sometimes a real hopelessness that can be overwhelming.”  

As a volunteer counselor for the Red Cross’s mental health disaster response team, Wellberg has provided free therapy after hurricanes in Florida and Puerto Rico, Typhoon Merbok in western Alaska and the 2018 Anchorage earthquake

She said that often, navigating heavy emotions is a neglected part of disaster recovery. 

“There’s so much of an immediate need for physical response,” Wellberg said. “And it’s hard to take care of yourself.” 

Barnes and many of her neighbors cannot return home. Their condo building was condemned. As those displaced families navigate the challenges of financing repairs and finding new places to live, they’re also still dealing with fear, shock and grief after losing their homes. 

The Red Cross offers free counseling services in the first few weeks after a disaster. Wellberg said she believes that care helps people prepare for long-term recovery. 

“There’s really a need to have a safe place to cry, and to be upset and to really feel that loss,” Wellberg said. “Doing some of that immediate steam-release helps them to see a direction forward.”

Kris Dorsey, Barnes’ downstairs neighbor, sought out mental health care soon after the flood. Dorsey said she found it hard to function. 

“This mental health side of it is more severe than I think people are aware of,” she said. “I’m having nightmares. I have this startle response to things.” 

She said her home is unrecognizable. The yard where her family used to play with their dog, the cottonwood trees on the riverbank that Dorsey used to paint — they’re both gone now. 

“It’s just disorienting to be in this place where you don’t recognize it anymore,” she said. 

Dorsey said her grief has come in waves. She’s been able to regroup while staying with her mother in town, but there have been many sleepless nights over the last month.

“Our homes are our safety and our comfort,” Dorsey said. “When you’re processing something that’s so traumatic — you can have family members help and you can have friends help, but it’s not the same as going to your own bed at night.”

One of the most surprising responses, she said, is a new tendency to catastrophize. While driving around Juneau, Dorsey has found herself making note of potential hazards — homes at the bottom of the mountains that might be vulnerable to landslides or mudslides, or homes near the water that could be taken out by the next flood.

Dorsey said she was able to process some of that fear with a Red Cross therapist. She said swimming and talking with friends and her neighbors has helped, too. Still, it’s hard to cope with the loss of her home. 

But additional therapy through the Red Cross won’t be an option. The organization wrapped up its disaster response in Juneau just over a week ago, and Dorsey said paying for sessions at a private practice is too expensive. 

And finding private mental health care in Juneau can be time-consuming too. The demand for therapists is high, and the number of providers is limited. New patients often face long wait times for an appointment. 

Barnes, Dorsey’s neighbor, said she found it difficult to prioritize her mental health even before the flood. The emotional vulnerability brought on by losing her home has been an adjustment. 

“Twenty-eight days later. I think this is the first day I haven’t cried,” Barnes said. “I’ve always been so resilient. But right now, this is hard.” 

Still, she thinks it will be too hard to find the time for more therapy. Both she and her husband work full-time as teachers. The school year started just days after the flood. 

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