Coping with emotional aftermath of Sonoma County fires

Two community meetings are scheduled for Thursday Oct 19, in Sonoma and Santa Rosa, for fire victims to get information about property debris removal.

And Sonoma County will also make sure counselors are on hand for any emotional fallout.
"We are a community in need of healing, " Mike Kennedy told KTVU, outside an evacuation center at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. 

Kennedy is the Director of Behavioral Health for Sonoma County, and has been staffing the various emergency shelters with more than 100 clinicians, to make sure survivors have a professional to talk to.
In the immediate aftermath, Kennedy says, people were in shock and emotionally numb.

Now, they may be experiencing a range of emotions.

"People have trouble sleeping, they are anxious, maybe angry," observed Kennedy, "and I know I've been having trouble keeping track of what day it is."

At Wednesday's daily public briefing, as officials updated fire containment and missing persons progress, Shirlee Zane took the mic to implore people to seek mental health care if they are in distress.

Zane is the chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, and a former family therapist. 

"This is not mental illness, this is suffering a loss and trauma, " Zane told KTVU.

She says many survivors are experiencing more than grief, and they could be suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, if they are dwelling on their near-death, having nightmares, and physical symptoms.

"You can have headaches, you may not want to eat. You have stomach problems, all of these can be symptoms when you have trauma, on top of a huge loss," explained Zane.  

At an Allstate insurance trailer Wednesday, Coffey Park survivor Lucy Flores picked up a check, and left with a smile.

She admits, though, she's had some rough days since losing her family lost their home, cars and all of their possessions in the Tubbs Fire.

"It's going to get better, I'm having a positive attitude," Flores smiled, "and I keep myself busy with all the things I need to do, so I move forward, since every day is a day I wake up and I'm alive!"  

Experts say it can be therapeutic, even essential, for people to tell their survivor story.

"I was at Peet's Coffee the other morning and talking to a guy, and said 'how you doing?', and he just broke down and cried," recounted Kennedy. "And then after he was finished, he said 'I don't know what just happened, but I do feel a little better.'"

Sadness, anxiety, even guilt, are all emotions to be expected, and most people will work through them, but if they become disabling, counseling can help.

People with pre-existing mental or emotional issues may also be especially vulnerable during a catastrophic event.

And children take their cues from how their parents cope, and should be encouraged to share their feelings too.  

"Kids experience grief differently from adults, so really watch the behavior of your children, spend a lot of time and really devote yourself to them, at their level, " advises Zane.

Added Kennedy: "What parents do impacts their kids, so it's important for parents, if they're struggling and anxious, to talk to somebody."

For Flores, a loving family is the source of strength that keeps her going, and smiling.

"My kids, my husband, and just keeping myself busy," she declared, " so I can't just sit around crying. There's stuff that needs to be done and I'm doing it!"

At the peak of the crisis, Sonoma County had an estimated 5,000 people housed in 34 emergency shelters.

With the lifting of evacuations in unburned areas, that number has dropped to 500 people in 7 shelters.

Residents seeking mental health support are encouraged to call (707) 565-6900. The crisis line is (707) 576-8181.