North Dakota Extension Turns To UF Psychologists For Support

Cindy Spence

Garret Evans (352) 392-1868
Sam Sears (352) 395-0680, ext. 54382

GAINESVILLE—Extension agents in North Dakota — long trusted advisers for crop, business and home advice — now find flood victims turning to them for help with the stress of recovery.

So the agents have turned to a team of University of Florida psychologists for advice.

The psychologists, veterans of Florida natural disasters, are part of a “go team” created in the wake of Hurricane Andrew. Their role is to help front line workers help victims.

While extension agents are accustomed to lending practical assistance — salvaging crops, replanting, getting a home back in shape — they sometimes find themselves in situations in which a farmer or homemaker wants them to lend an ear.

“When folks are under stress they go to people they trust, and extension agents, particularly in rural areas, are very much who people trust,” said team co-leader Sam Sears, of UF’s Department of Clinical and Health Psychology and the North Florida Area Health Education Center.

The devastation of a natural disaster makes people uncomfortable and the emotion that surfaces during recovery can sometimes overwhelm relief workers, said clinical psychologist Garret Evans, another team leader from UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“We wanted to help the extension agents and other workers become comfortable with the way the victims are responding. Many of the people working with the victims were just thrown on the front lines and just wanted us to tell them what to look for and how to know when to refer someone for help,” said Evans.

“When there’s a disaster everybody picks up a bucket and hauls water, even if it’s not what you normally do,” Evans said. “It’s the same with emotional reactions. Even if you don’t normally listen to someone talk about stress or how the family is pulling through, in a disaster you do.”

The North Dakota disaster shares some similarities with the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. The flood destroyed homes, displaced families and put many commercial enterprises out of business.

But the recovery will be much different for North Dakotans, Evans and Sears said. For one, many flood victims have returned to homes that look habitable but are structurally unsound. Then, North Dakota weather will bring rebuilding to a halt in October, leaving victims with unwanted time on their hands.

“Folks cope better when they can take action,” Sears said. “But this will be a segmented rebuilding effort and the pace of the recovery will be frustrating.”

Evans said the routines that many people take as a sign of life returning to normal will be denied to North Dakotans. Proms were canceled, graduations will be in July, and many spring crops were not planted so there will be fewer fall harvests.

“This thing just goes on and on and on,” Evans said.

The scope of the disaster, too, is larger than in Hurricane Andrew. The North Dakota disaster actually started in the central and western part of the state in October with an unusually early blizzard. Ten more blizzards followed, with an unsually late blizzard in April dealing the final blow to cattle producers, who couldn’t pull their remaining cattle in from the fields in time.

Then, in the Devils Lake region, homeowners have been dealing with a three-year crisis. Several have moved homes back from the flooding lake two and three times and cannot move their homes farther from the lake’s waters. They are helplessly watching as the lake swallows their homes.

And finally, the Red River flood hit the Grand Forks region.

“This is even more complex than what we’ve had here,” Sears said.

The toughest times are yet to come as emergency agency workers pull out of North Dakota over the summer, Evans said. Then extension agents will be called upon to play an even bigger role as the community faces the challenge of rebuilding itself.

“These regions are forever changed,” Evans said. “They will never be the same as before and the task ahead for them is to build to a new future. The extension agents we worked with were clearly committed to that.”

As neighbors of the victims, extension agents will be in a position to assist with the long-term stress disaster survivors sometimes feel. They may find people calling them to talk about cattle and end up talking about sleeplessness and anxiety. Or someone may talk about a fearful child, when he actually is talking about himself. Extension agents need to be sensitive to underlying concerns in conversations, Evans and Sears said.

“These are non-traditional problems for the agents and what we wanted to do was make them comfortable in this area,” Sears said.

Evans said the victims are reacting normally to an abnormal situation. The front line workers, he said, will see many styles of grieving because there is no one right way to mourn.

“There are still folks in South Florida who, when there’s rain, wind and lightning, flash back to Andrew. The pressure drops and they get nervous,” Evans said. “The same thing will likely happen in North Dakota when it rains and snows again.”

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Posted: June 20, 1997

Category: UF/IFAS

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