Four Years after Hurricane Sandy – Mental Health Needs Still a Major Concern

From left: Dr. Rebecca Schwartz, Project Restoration; Ken Brown; Mary Washington; and Far Rockaway Treatment Center director Al Barretto.

FAR ROCKAWAY, NY – A Queens study that tracked the mental health effects of Hurricane Sandy – and its impact on addiction – revealed the devastation of the storm was felt well beyond the financial nightmare and left untold residents self-medicating by turning to drugs such as crack cocaine.

Few New Yorkers will ever forget the events of October 29, 2012, when Hurricane Sandy (often referred to as “Superstorm Sandy”) made landfall in New York. With wind speeds of 80 mph and unprecedented tidal surges, Sandy left in its wake untold devastation. Subways closed, tunnels were flooded, homes and businesses were destroyed by water and fire, and major hospitals were evacuated.

When it was all over, it was estimated that the damage done by Hurricane Sandy amounted to more than $18 billion in New York. More than 50 people lost their lives, and in Breezy Point, Queens, over 100 homes were destroyed. The Rockaways area of Queens was one of the most devastated areas of all. If the physical damage suffered by residents of this area was not enough, the psychological havoc left behind was incalculable, causing fear, desperation, panic and grief among local residents. To address the mental health component suffered by Rockaways residents most affected by Hurricane Sandy, Project Restoration was formed in 2014.

Led by Rebecca Schwartz, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Occupational Medicine, Epidemiology and Prevention at Northwell Health, the mission of Project Restoration is to understand the long-term mental health impact of Hurricane Sandy on adult residents of the Rockaways and to link those in need of mental health care with local providers. So far, Dr. Schwartz and her team have surveyed more than 1,000 residents of this community.

“The project accomplishes these goals by screening adults ages 18-plus in the Rockaways for mental health difficulties,” said Dr. Schwartz. “Restoration also provides assistance with any barriers into mental health care such as reimbursing co-pays and providing metro cards for getting to appointments.”

In addition to providing this linkage to care, Project Restoration has increased the availability of mental health services by offering social work services and starting trauma support at the Far Rockaway Treatment Center operated by Zucker Hillside Hospital, a behavioral health facility within Northwell Health.

The devastation of the storm caused many people suffering from depression and/or anxiety to seek  treatment, according to the Center’s Director, Alberto Barreto. “That’s why Dr. Schwartz’ study is so important to our understanding of the psychological damage created by natural disasters such as this,” he said.

During a meeting held today at the Center, Mary Washington, 59, and Ken Brown, 53, both of Far Rockaway, discussed their experiences during the storm and their gratitude for the treatment they receive at Far Rockaway Treatment Center.

Mr. Brown, a former abuser of crack cocaine, admitted that he had been a user since he was 19. He recalled that he had been visiting a friend who lived in Far Rockaway when the storm hit.

“I was stuck there and there was literally nothing else to do,” he said. “So, as addicts, we turned to what we knew whenever we tried to deal with depression and anxiety. To look outside and see nothing but darkness was just terrible.”

Now looking forward to returning to a vocational school, Mr. Brown is looking towards the future. “I’m always going to be an addict,” he said, “but I’m a recovering addict. I’ve been clean for almost a year, and I’m grateful to be here.”

Ms. Washington recalled her back-and-forth experiences with substance abuse. And, as Dr. Schwartz and Mr. Brown pointed out, living through a natural disaster only made things worse.

“What I saw – the water, the dirt, the debris – if you can understand, it all just made me want to get higher,” said Ms. Washington.. “We just didn’t want to believe this was happening to us. With crack, I could just close my eyes and be alone in the dark.”

Like Mr.  Brown, Ms. Washington is pleased to say that she is in recovery and looking toward the future. “I come to my program every day, I’m taking care of myself, and I’m getting better,” she said. “In every way, I’m doing great."

So far, Project Restoration has been resoundingly successful, said Dr. Schwartz. 

“To date, the team has surveyed 1,009 Rockaways residents, 494 were deemed eligible for services through Project Restoration. Of those, 139 participants have been successfully linked into care with local providers,” she said.

Highlighted study findings include:

  • Increased levels of hurricane exposure were significantly associated with greater mental health difficulties including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
  • The impact of the hurricane on those mental health difficulties persist nearly four years later.
  • Hurricane exposure was not significantly associated with alcohol, drug or tobacco use.
  • Those with symptoms of PTSD were more likely to demonstrate greater resilience and post traumatic growth in the face of this natural disaster.

To learn more about the work being done by the Project Restoration team at Northwell, call project coordinator Samantha Schneider at 516-465-7947.

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About Northwell Health
Northwell Health is New York State’s largest health care provider and private employer, with 21 hospitals and over 500 outpatient practices. We care for more than 1.8 million people annually in the metro New York area and beyond, thanks to philanthropic support from our communities. Our 61,000 employees – including 15,000+ nurses and 2,500+ doctors within Northwell Health Physician Partners – are working to change health care for the better. We’re making breakthroughs in medicine at the Feinstein Institute. We're training the next generation of medical professionals at the visionary Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine and the School of Graduate Nursing and Physician Assistant Studies. And we offer health insurance through CareConnect. For information on our more than 100 medical specialties, visit Northwell.edu.

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