It has been three years since landslides took the lives of two Haines residents and wreaked havoc in town.
All residents were affected in one way or another. The recent deadly landslide in Wrangell can trigger that past trauma. KHNS spoke with the mental health professionals who were in Haines during the crisis to care for the community from the first moments.
In early December of 2020, a storm dropped over a foot of rain on Haines. Some parts of town flooded. Landslides destroyed homes. Two well-loved residents died. There was much physical damage, and also much psychological distress.
“I was home when the slide went, and my house faces it, so I did see it,” said Cesre McQuaid.
McQuaid is a therapist in Haines. She was on call, working for the local clinic at the time. She has trained for crisis response, and she said that training kicked in.
“So I kind of knew there were things that needed to be done,” she said. “I knew quickly that we needed to make sure we got in touch with Bartlett (Regional Hospital) to figure out a way to make sure that if we had a psychiatric emergency, how were we going to get someone over to Bartlett if that’s what we needed to do. Some of those early kinds of things helped. Having a job to do. Having a first responder role helped me.”
Twenty-five miles up the valley, Riley Hall, a counselor also on the clinic’s staff, knew his services would be needed.
“We were responding, and we were also impacted at the same time,” Hall said. “I was up the highway, so on that first day it was hard to respond, because there were landslides blocking access to town, and it didn’t feel super safe yet to be on the corridor. But once we were able to, I responded a little bit up the highway, in effect putting an outpost for people to talk if they needed to.”
Hall said he eventually loaded his truck with shovels and a chainsaw, and managed to make it to town. Once there, he joined a team of mental health care professionals who rotated between the legion hall, the public safety building and other places where people gathered. They provided what McQuaid describes as psychological first aid.
“In practice it would be just a lot of psycho-education, a lot of normalizing the responses that people are having. Making sure that people are being connected to the resources that they need,” McQuaid said. “It’s pretty important in the very beginning after a disaster, to really help people understand that what they are having, oftentimes they are having new emotions and new reactions, and so to help them understand that these strong responses are normal.”
John Hischer is a therapist in Skagway. He also has helped patients affected by the event. He said during these kinds of emergencies, people go through a series of stages.
“The first phase people are kind of in shock,” he said. “But they also see a lot of altruism in their community, so there are a lot of emotional highs that can happen too.”
“I still tear up when I think of the volunteers that showed up, the folks that sat in the firehall, the people that were feeding one another, the people that were checking in on one another, the people that wanted to make sure that folks had the information as quickly as possible,” she said.
But Hischer said this phase does not last forever.
“It’s the next phase when people start leaving or public officials stop talking about it, that a lot of that depression and anger can start coming up,” Hischer said. “It wasn’t immediately after it, but months after the slide happened, I saw a lot of folks feeling abandoned or forgotten.”
McQuaid said during a traumatic emergency, it is important that people understand how their mind is reacting.
“Our brain is designed for survival, it’s not designed for happiness, so our brain is designed to help us psychologically digest in a way that we can manage,” McQuaid said. “You might have a harder time remembering things, or concentrating, but that’s your brain doing just what it’s supposed to be doing right now, which is kind of taking things in in bite-sized chunks just so that you can be able to process what is going on.”
Hall also stresses the importance of patience and connection. He said kids were affected by the deaths, which also happened in the recent tragedy in Wrangell. Jenae Larson, who died in the Haines landslide, was a kindergarten teacher.
“With Wrangell and in Haines, Jenae was so integrated into the school, and the Heller family there in Wrangell had kids in just about every age group,” he said. “It’s really important to give kids some space and some places where they can talk about the loss of their friends or the loss of their teacher. Just allowing kids some channels where they can sort through complicated and hard feelings about what is going on.”
McQuaid said sleep is very important to help process what is going on.
“When you go to sleep at night, your brain is going through the natural process of taking your memory networks and processing those into adaptive resources for us,” she said. “ So it’s like this idea of when you fall asleep, you have a problem that’s going on and then you say, ‘Well I need to sleep on this’, and you sleep on it and you actually do wake up in the morning feeling better, coming up with a couple other ideas on how to handle something.”
Hischer said the slide in Wrangell has no doubt revived some painful feelings for Haines residents.
“I was just thinking about Haines when I saw what happened in Wrangell,” Hischer said. “That can be one of those triggering events that can bring up a lot of distress in folks. Reliving some of that sadness and fear when something like that happens in a neighboring community.”
McQuaid said anyone who feels moved to help or reach out should not hold back.
“I think people shouldn’t be afraid to put themselves out there. You have something to offer,” she said. “Each person has something to offer. You don’t have to wait to be asked. If there is something that you feel personally moved to do, a gesture of support is never worthless.”
Hischer wants communities to prepare for the long-term effects of catastrophes.
“Hopefully, the communities in Southeast Alaska are really thinking about that, not just short term mental health services, but really helping provide long term mental health services after a disaster,” Hischer said. “Because disasters don’t just happen and conclude, they have really long range impact on people’s lives.”
“Grief is funny that way. Grief kind of comes to us episodically, we go through periods when we might not think about it as much and then at other times, something will bring it up really acutely,” he said. “I’ve certainly heard from many people that the landslide scarp is still kind of a pretty shocking trigger to witness.”
McQuaid said she is impressed and proud of how the community of Haines came together during the tragedy.
“It’s ok to not be ok. It’s ok to be scared,” McQuaid said. “Collectively, we are going to figure this out. There is a collective impact on us all. Knowing that others care, knowing that people want to show up. Knowing that they are not alone. That makes all the difference in the world. Even if we are all freaking out together. It doesn’t have to look great, that’s the best way to describe it. You know people are getting upset, we are still in it together.”
She said anyone experiencing distress should not hesitate to reach out to friends, family, or a professional.