Welcome to the survivors’ club. Whether you lost your belongings, your car, your home, a loved one or your entire neighborhood, you are not a victim and don’t let anyone label you that way. You are not helpless. You will get through this.
In the disaster zone, your brain won’t want to process what your eyes are seeing. You will see, hear and smell things you never thought you would. It will feel like you’re in a dream or on a movie set, because this simply can’t be the place where you lived.
You will feel like an ant trying to move a mountain. Don’t be paralyzed into inaction by the enormity of the task ahead of you. It can be done. Just keep moving. Any forward progress, even in baby steps, is good.
Salvage what you can. The smallest items will be precious reminders of the past. But recognize what is beyond repair and as painful as it is, throw it out. If you can’t, have someone else do it for you.
Don’t punish yourself or those you love because you (or they) did not store your family photos in the attic, move the car, save your vital papers, evacuate, buy flood insurance. What’s done is done. Let it go.
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You are on autopilot now. Your adrenaline is pumping as you figure out where to live, find food, buy gasoline. You will get used to standing in lines. Use that time to bond with others who are on the same journey. Anger and frustration help no one.
Respect the rules of a disaster zone. Don’t cut in line. Defer to the young and the old who are most vulnerable at these times. Just because property is sitting in the middle of a street or dangling from a tree branch does not mean it’s free for the taking. It belongs to someone. Stack salvageable items where neighbors can see them and potentially reclaim their lost property.
“How’s your house?” will become the new greeting when you see friends and neighbors. You will have a new way of marking time — pre-Sandy and post-Sandy. The definition of the word “home” will expand to include a shelter, a couch, a garage, a friend’s basement.
Disasters are great equalizers. They reveal people’s true nature — for better or for worse. You will find out who your real friends are and what love really means. Incredible acts of kindness will come from unexpected quarters. Beware of the few who seek to profit from the misery of others.
Feel the pain. Cry if you need to. Hug each other. Share what you have. Know that you are not alone, because volunteers by the thousands are on their way. Their selfless generosity will renew your faith in your fellow man.
Your instinct will be to rebuild an exact replica of what was, down to the last brick, board and beam. Consider carefully whether that is wise or even possible. Seek out ways to prevent future damage by rebuilding higher, smarter, stronger and further from the water. See this as an opportunity.
Accept the new normal. The past is just that. You can cherish the place you and your neighbors once called home where it will always exist — in your collective memories.
Kathleen Koch is a former CNN correspondent who covered Hurricane Katrina and wrote Rising from Katrina: How My Mississippi Hometown Lost It All and Found What Mattered.