On the surface of the Onion Creek neighborhood, there’s progress.
The community is slowly recovering from 2013's deadly Halloween floods. Many families are back in their homes, even though most homes have yet to be fully rebuilt. But scratch the surface, and people are still suffering the psychological effects of that night.
Often when we hear about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it's in the context of war. But David Evans, CEO of Austin/Travis County Integral Care, says PTSD can affect those who survive any traumatic experience.
PTSD can include the death of a loved one, or a natural disaster like the Onion Creek floods. “As a diagnosis,” Evans says, “it certainly is the same thing.”
Evans says most disasters take our minds through six phases:
First comes the warning or threat. Evans says it plays into “the uncertainty of what could happen.” For many in Onion Creek, the trauma started with the warning phase – despite there being literally no official warning.
Lydia Huerta says in the back of her mind she used to rehearse a scenario of what she’d do the next time Onion Creek flooded.
“We always knew it was going to flood,” she says. So she kept her family photos and some of her most precious possessions inside her great-grandmother’s hope chest. “And I thought if it ever floods I’m going to take [the chest], throw it on the bed. And there was no time to even do that.”
Having no warning affected Huerta. But then, it was time to switch into phase two.
“Individuals have a fuzzy or just not even very clear [understanding] as to where the disaster first was beginning and ending for them," Evans says. “They just know that it was a time of just sudden and hard impact.”
After impact, the surviving brain kicks into what’s known as the heroic phase.
Ashley Harnett risked her life to help others.
Instead of getting as far away from the disaster area as possible, Harnett jumped into car and drove into flooded Onion Creek, hoping to rescue her grandparents. “The whole time my heart was pounding,” Harnett says. She couldn’t get a hold of anybody over the phone. And, even though she feared the worse, she kept driving.
“I was watching the water rise, the whole time and just praying that nothing bad was going to come out of this,” she says. Harnett’s grandparents made it safely into a shelter that day.
The fourth phase kicks in once the disaster comes to an end. Mental health experts call it the “honeymoon” phase. “People begin to pitch in, they collaborate for the collective good,” Evans says.
For Stacy Sorto this phase was a lifesaver. Her sister pitched in by opening her apartment to Sorto’s family of four.
Soon, others joined in – strangers from all over the city who “donated so much that we had to donate to the rest of the community,” Sorto says. “I get goose pumps just thinking about [it]. It was overwhelming.”
When the help tapers off, the fifth phase, or disillusionment phase, begins.
Evans says there's an overwhelming sense of disillusionment in Onion Creek, stemming from the way the City of Austin's response. “Too slow, too late and often, poorly distributed,” Evans has heard.
Then we reach the last level of adjustment.
During reconstruction, some people have an easier time readjusting than others. Every survivor emerges changed by their experience, but the mental health of many bounces back. Especially children.
The majority of the children in Onion Creek went through the same experience, creating a de facto support group. Schools have provided counselors since day one.
But the grownups have found more challenges: in part because they don’t always have a peer group, and in part, because there are fewer resources available.
There’s a new mental health clinic in the Onion Creek and Dove Springs community. Years in the making, it opened at the same time the floods hit.
As people move back in, David Evans says it’s crucial to let them know there is help available. “Don’t forget the adults,” he says.