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Emotional Aftereffects

By Beth Mirza  5/12/2011
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The tornadoes wrought clearly visible devastation throughout the Southeast. But employers also need to be aware of a hidden wreckage—the emotional toll that the storms have taken on their employees, whether they lost their homes or family members or are assisting with the cleanup efforts.

Howard Syvarth is a hydrogeologist. He assisted with the cleanup at Ground Zero following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City. For six weeks, he and his co-workers conducted air sampling for toxic materials and collected and identified hazardous materials. People working in disaster recovery undergo tremendous emotional strain, he said.

“At first, it was just so overwhelming,” Syvarth said. “That took a long time to get [our] heads wrapped around—the extreme nature of the situation.”

Each day, from November through Christmas and past New Year’s Day, Syvarth and his colleagues worked alongside soldiers patrolling the site atop jeeps with machine guns. From time to time, he looked up from his work to see that everything had come to a stop. People had removed their hats, and recovery workers were walking by carrying a cloth-draped gurney.

“It takes a lot of effort to keep [your emotions] inside. You start to get worn down,” Syvarth said.

It is essential that people doing this type of work have someone they can talk to about their reactions to the situation, Syvarth said.

“At first, you [talk] it out with the people you’re working with,” he said. “That could be sitting around with some adult beverages. But that only goes so far.”

Additional support can come from family members—though the stress of the situation puts great strain on relationships, Syvarth said—or from counselors provided through the workplace. Places of worship can help, too, he added. “It is crucial to have a place to go, to cry if they need to.

“You are going into a situation that no more than a dozen or two dozen people have ever seen. Don’t be afraid to say something is eating at you. Let it out—the sooner, the better—and acknowledge it,” he said.

Syvarth said he never sought professional help but that he did feel the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“By putting time and distance between [him and the recovery site], I came to grips with a bunch of it on my own. I realized what was happening—a lot of sleeplessness and stress was the result of not being able to deal with what I had seen.

“PTSD is a delayed response. Everyone wants to go rushing in, and you do have to hit the ground running. But no one can run forever. Let people decompress and find a way to get things out of their system.”

Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at


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