Coping After Hurricane Harvey Through Hometown Healing

By Andrea Arrazolo, LMSW, a mental health specialist, with Memorial Hermann Medical Group

Life since Hurricane Harvey has been an emotional roller coaster. It’s been a year, but every day I am reminded of Aug. 26, 2017 – a day that tested my will and my ability to survive. The reminders aren’t always negative or traumatic. They can be simple, everyday occurrences like me wanting to wear my favorite dress, but then remembering it was lost during the hurricane. Or, walking by the window in my kitchen, which is still boarded as a result of the storm. Although my home was flooded and I spent nearly nine hours on the roof of my single-story home sitting underneath a tarp with my two dogs for shelter as rain continued to pour, I still consider myself extremely lucky.

Harvey Changed Me, But It Didn’t Break Me

It is impossible to survive a natural disaster like Harvey and not be changed – even a little. Harvey was in a sense, the perfect storm. It brought both physical change to the landscape of the place I called home for years and it also changed who I am. Within hours, the hurricane turned countless people’s lives upside down. But there was beauty, too, after the storm. Houstonians helped neighbors and strangers, and people from all across the United States came together to support our city. I remember driving to Dallas the Sunday after the hurricane and seeing countless vehicles loaded with watercrafts heading to Houston. The sight made me cry with gratitude.

Harvey showed us that despite our differences, we are still united. When someone is in need of help, we’ll be there for one another. Harvey taught me that even through catastrophe, I have the ability to overcome the toughest circumstances.

Harvey empowered me. I felt like I could do anything. I, alone, was able to break out of my home, climb through a window, scale a ladder and safely get myself and two dogs on my roof. I literally survived a hurricane with minimal shelter. Harvey taught me that I had a survivor instinct, and when it mattered I was able to act fast under pressure. In many ways, the hurricane also humbled me.

These days, I find myself indulging less in material things and spending more time with loved ones.  I lost so many physical possessions in the storm, but the relationships that have flourished with friends, family and my community since the storm have been invaluable. I have many talented friends and family members who were willing to give me something of theirs that I consider so priceless — their time. Many of them cancelled their plans to help me gut my home, throw away my beloved possessions and ultimately rebuild the flood damaged structure that vaguely resembled my home. My home had become a place of calm and comfort again.

The bulk of the renovations took about three months to complete. I lived with my mother for some time and then lived in an RV parked in the driveway of my South Houston home. The living accommodations had also become the “new normal” for many of my neighbors. In the days after Harvey, my neighborhood resembled an RV park. Heaps of flood-ravaged drywall, carpet, furniture and possessions lined the curbsides. I am so thankful for the outpouring of help from those who were not directly affected toward families who had lost so much. In my subdivision, neighbors offered food, beverages and a helping hand with the cleanup. I could tell it was heartfelt and it lifted the spirits of all of my neighbors and me.

Coping With the Emotional Hurricane Through Volunteerism

The anniversary of Hurricane Harvey is going to be, in a sense, a hurricane of emotions for me and I’m sure for so many others. But I’m looking forward to channeling those emotions into Hometown Healing, as I volunteer during Memorial Hermann’s service campaign. I am hopeful that volunteering will provide me with a unique healing power that can only come from helping others. It will be a full-circle moment as I volunteer with Memorial Hermann, my current employer, and the same organization where my interest for volunteering was first piqued.

As a freshman in college, I volunteered at Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital. It was there I set a goal of someday officially joining the Memorial Hermann Health System family as an employee. Now, here I am years later, preparing to give back to the community that helped me during my time of need. I am finally at a place where I am mentally and physically ready to give back to others who may still be reeling from Harvey. I’ve always had a passion for giving back to others in need and wanted to immediately after Harvey, but my emotional state wouldn’t allow me to do so.

As a mental health specialist, I am knowledgeable of the symptoms of PTSD. After Harvey, I knew I needed to take a break to cope with the experience of losing my home and being stuck on my roof for hours. In the immediate aftermath of Harvey I was exhausted – physically and mentally. I believe my expertise in mental health equipped me with the tools I needed to reestablish a sense of stability after the hurricane. Memorial Hermann’s Employee Harvey Relief Fund and the Employee Assistance Program provided with me with invaluable resources, including financial assistance and therapy that allowed me to rebuild the pieces of my life that Harvey tried to wash away.

Healing is on the Horizon

Now that I’m back in my home, I look around and see the markings of fresh and old memories. Some are happy memories, others aren’t – most of those are effects of Harvey. As the anniversary of Hurricane Harvey approaches, I feel myself becoming tense and anxious. At times I have even become irritable and overly sensitive. But, I am hopeful. I have peace in knowing I am not defined by what I experienced during Hurricane Harvey, but rather empowered by it.

I know there are other people who are still juggling the effects of Harvey. Many families are still unable to return to their homes, some are living in shells of what their homes used to be while others are coping with the loss of loved ones. Each day in my profession, I encourage individuals to have hope that their current circumstances will change. Harvey interrupted lives and it is okay to seek help to cope. Memorial Hermann supported me during my time of need and will do the same for you.

Since Harvey, I have clung to the word “resilience.” It has been what’s allowed me to face great adversity and come out on the other side as a survivor. My constant support system of family, friends and coworkers helped keep me afloat immediately after Harvey. This weekend, as I proudly wear my Memorial Hermann Community Volunteer T-shirt,  I’ll give my time and energy to the same community that has helped me get to where I am today. I am hopeful that more great things are to come – in my life and in our community.

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Ali Vise