Fourteen more people died in Oklahoma last Friday. It doesn’t seem that the news is covering it as heavily as they covered the Moore tornado, but the lives are just as important. As I make my way north toward Norman again, the tension seems to mount. My family and friends ask me where I’m staying, just in case something happens and they can’t get ahold of me, they say. I’m not really nervous about heading back up to tornado alley, even while the week’s forecast shows thunderstorms for four days in a row, I think. But my dreams suggest a different story. Last night I dreamt of a tornado, of course, and me huddled with my family as my mother went to the bed to get a mattress to cover us. That was pretty much the entirety of the dream; there was no definitive ending. Pretty common with dreams. But it does make me think I might have some uncertainty, some amount of fear, even if I’m not admitting it to myself.
This begs the question: if I am experiencing this level of anxiety, not even ever having experienced a tornado, what must the survivors of the Oklahoma tornadoes be experiencing? What must their friends, neighbors and relatives be feeling? As more storms burn through Oklahoma’s heart, more destruction ensues, and more lives are lost, how are they coping? Does the rumble of thunder now make their heart skip a beat? Does a lightning flash bring back memories that they wish they could bury? In the words of one of our volunteers, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma, “I talked to one woman who was absolutely overwhelmed by the prospect of having to make a home again. Why bother to decorate when it will all get blown away again?, she wondered. Rough.”
As COHI continues our women’s health needs assessment in Oklahoma, some preliminary conclusions can already begin to be made about women’s need for health services. At the top of this list: mental health needs are in great demand. Some volunteers are reporting that while in the days immediately following the tornadoes on May 18-20, women would often talk about the needs of their children, they are now beginning to talk more about their own need for emotional support. There is a documented increase in violence against women and children in times of emergency. And as sad as it sounds, this makes sense. According to the same volunteer cited above, “children have lots of resources for working things through: talking, drawing, imaginative play. But adults have many fewer of such means to process trauma, so they take it out on themselves and those around them, so children get re-traumatized.” And women do too.
COHI has experience working with women and women’s counselors concerning trauma. So, one of the goals of me going back to Oklahoma this week is to assess the need for COHI to provide some of this training. It may just be a question of making sure that the existing services are actually getting to the women who need them. That is why COHI is conducting this women’s health assessment. The assessment is a road map. And it will tell us, and the rest of the relief community, how to fill the gaps, and more importantly, how to strengthen women’s health care, making it even better than it was before.
Michelle Jones, CPM, LM