Penn State professors counsel residents of flood-stricken Minot, ND

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- They were warned of the impending flood. They thought they had time.

So the couple began helping neighbors collect prized possessions from their homes, such as documents, photos, and even appliances, furnaces, and kitchen cabinets, and load them onto trucks. But when they returned home to collect their own things, the evacuation sirens sounded and they were forced to leave almost immediately. The flood had arrived.

"If only I'd had more time to take care of my own family," the man -- a father -- repeated over and over. "If only I could get one day back instead of leaving my family with nothing!"

JoLynn Carney and Richard Hazler listened to the story. It was one they had heard all too often.

Licensed professional clinical counselors -- Carney, an associate professor of counselor education at Penn State, and Hazler, the professor-in-charge of counselor education at Penn State, both in the College of Education -- were called upon by the American Red Cross to help provide crisis counseling to some of the 10,000-plus displaced victims of the flood that ravaged the town of Minot, N.D., in June 2011.

"When we arrived, there was water everywhere, and it was filled with sewage, pesticides, and other contaminants," said Carney. "Displaced families were living in crowded conditions, either with relatives or friends, in tents or campers set up in the parking lots of local facilities like K-Mart, or in Red Cross shelters. The situation was very stressful as families had already been out of their homes for weeks with no end in sight. Many would not be able to return to their homes for months, if at all, and others who would be able to get back into their neighborhoods, would have significant rebuilding to do."

Carney and Hazler put aside vacation time to spend two weeks working in Minot. As licensed professional clinical counselors and counseling researchers, they were able to offer flood victims the highest quality care, grounded in the latest research. During their disaster deployment, they worked 10-to-12-hour shifts in the client shelter and in the primary Red Cross Service Center where flood victims came to obtain support and resources.

"People were learning that their homes had been destroyed," said Carney. "They were devastated by their losses, and some were angry at officials for leading them to believe they didn’t need flood insurance and for failing to control the dams in Canada and neighboring states that regulate the river. Many people were in a place of literally not knowing what to do next. They're strong, independent people who don't automatically ask for help from outsiders, but they were overwhelmed with the work that faced them and of not being able to make it alone."

Hazler added, "We provided therapeutic support to help them reduce stress so that they could work on what to do next. We intervened when they were feeling overwhelmed and helped them work through conflicts. Many people needed to hear that their feelings of grief, loss, and guilt were legitimate and normal -- that they were not going crazy. We assisted them in starting to accept what had happened and begin working on what to do next."

In addition to counseling flood-impacted individuals, Carney and Hazler also supported some of the hundreds of Red Cross workers who were on site.

"By the time we arrived in Minot, the flood waters already had been there for three weeks,” said Carney. “Red Cross staff members are not immune to the trauma associated with disasters. Part of our role as Red Cross disaster mental health responders was to provide counseling to staff who were overwhelmed with the circumstances and in some cases to support them leaving the site early."

The Minot flood was the first national Red Cross disaster to which Carney and Hazler responded, but for most of their careers they have worked in support of small-scale tragedies including fires, bomb scares, and sudden deaths in schools.

Carney and Hazler said that these experiences enrich their teaching at Penn State. “Because of our experiences, we are able to teach students what it’s really like to do crisis interventions,” said Hazler. “And current events, like the Minot flood, provide examples that can bring the lesson alive for students.”

Indeed, their volunteer work provides tragically real-life examples for teaching, allows them to apply their clinical skills, and supports their research. Hazler, for example, studies, among other things, the humanistic approach to counseling in which the pathological aspects of a client’s life are given less emphasis than the healthy aspects so as to help clients develop a stronger and more healthy sense of self.

But Carney and Hazler don’t really do the work to improve their teaching or research; they do it because it is the right thing to do. “We help because we have the skills to help … and because it is good for the soul,” said Hazler.
 

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Last Updated August 23, 2011