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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Disaster Mental Health for a Harrowing Experience

Story and photos by Robert W. Wallace

Mike Horn listens as Red Cross disaster mental health
volunteer Paul Wenham describes the after effects of
describing the terror that the Horns endured.
“It was like being thrown into a giant blender, only with cars and huge pieces of buildings swirling around that I kept crashing into,” said Mike Horn as he spoke to American Red Cross disaster mental health worker Paul Wenham. During the recent flooding, the Horn’s home, which once sat alongside the Big Thompson River, collapsed, triggering a night of terror for its occupants after they were thrown into the raging river.

Wenham, a professional clinical social worker is one of the many American Red Cross licensed mental health workers deployed to Colorado, who are trained in disaster counseling skills. When disaster strikes they travel to the site to help victims and relief workers deal with the trauma and stresses of disaster.

On this day Wenham was sitting in a quiet corner lobby of the Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland, Colorado, where Mike Horn’s wife, Florence, is still recovering. After listening empathetically to Mike Horn’s harrowing story of terror and rescue, Wenham quietly and calmly began to explain some of the physiological and psychological consequences of being exposed to and having survived such an experience.

The ordeal began on the morning of Thursday, September 12. About 6:30 am, Florence Horn pulled back the curtains and saw that the river was rising. Mike Horn went out to inspect the two bridges they must cross to exit onto the main road. The water was already five feet deep over one of the bridges, blocking their exit. “I knew then that sooner or later we were going to have to go into the water,” said Mike Horn.

Mike Horn called the Sheriff’s Department and alerted them to their situation. Then they settled in and waited as the water continued to rise. At 2:30 am, their wait ended. That’s when the water washed away their house, and they were thrown into the raging waters of the river, as one side of the house was shattered.

Mike Horn and Red Cross disaster mental health
volunteer Paul Wenham comfort Florence Horn as she
convalesces in her bed at the Medical Center of the
Rockies in Loveland, Colorado.
“I’m a good swimmer, a SCUBA diver,” said Mike Horn, “but not in that kind of water. I tried to act as a cork, just be carried along, keeping my head up and avoiding swallowing water.” Mike and Florence were separated from one another as they were swept along. Mike eventually ended up hanging onto a tree. Florence was some distance away holding tight to a piece of building debris. In the darkness and confusion, Mike could not see her, but he could hear his wife’s screams.

Eventually, neighbors from across the river rescued Florence and then, several hours later Mike was rescued. During her ordeal Florence suffered a broken leg and numerous contusions and abrasions. They were both airlifted out of the flooded area in a Black Hawk helicopter. Florence was admitted to the Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland, where she remains. Now homeless, Mike Horn stays with his wife at the Medical Center. “They have been wonderful facility here and have been very kind,” said Mike Horn.

When Mike Horn went to sign-up for assistance from FEMA, the caseworker suggested that he contact the Red Cross and gave him the phone number for the call center serving the Colorado disaster. When he made the call and told his story of survival to Red Cross volunteer Squeak Birg,“I told him I wish I could reach out and hug him, but since I can’t, I was going to send him to somebody who can do that,” said Birg.

Wenham was in the middle of a pizza dinner after a long day of assisting clients when he received the call from Birg. He quickly finished his meal and was soon sitting at Mike Horn’s side listening to his story and offering emotional support. This is what Red Cross disaster mental health volunteers do. Wenham continues to check in on the Horns as they embark on their journey of emotional recovery.

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