Bradley Smith, director of special programs in Student Affairs, was one of over 3,500 Red Cross volunteers deployed to North Carolina in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.
When one thinks of the devastation caused by natural disasters, not many imagine the mental and emotional trauma caused that can take years to recover from. The slow-moving yet ferocious nature of Hurricane Florence caused life-threatening and long-term damage, according to The New York Times.
Because he was a licensed professional clinical counselor, Smith responded to the urgent national call from Red Cross asking for licensed mental health professionals to assist victims of Hurricane Florence — he volunteered from Oct. 7 to Oct. 16 of this year. Smith is also a board-certified alcohol and other drug counselor, as well as LMU’s substance use disorders response specialist.
Beginning most of his days in North Carolina at 7 a.m. and working until 7 p.m., Smith was placed in one of the five shelters in North Carolina "Disaster Response (DR)" 6, a four-county area including Pender, Brunswick, New Hanover and Bladen counties. Smith was among over 100 people residing in a high school gymnasium-turned-shelter on cots.
Smith treated people who were experiencing complex mental and medical syndromes living in hurricane shelters who knew there was no chance of returning to their homes. With businesses and schools closed, there was a lot of boredom and anxiety among those living in the shelters. Smith documented about 40 “clinically significant contacts” per day.
“Most of the people who remained in the shelter were marginalized and underserved before the disaster,” Smith said. “My work was largely limited to an approach known as Psychological First Aid: creating a compassionate presence, listening, ensuring fundamental safety, meeting basic needs, building coping skills — and, from a sheer tactical standpoint, ending the conversation. There was just too much need.”
With the aftermath of Hurricane Florence and the incoming impact of Hurricane Michael four days later, the scale of need, according to Smith, was extremely profound. Hurricane Florence left numerous houses without power, with flooding, fallen trees and scattered debris everywhere, as reported by the New York Times. Thousands of residents did not have homes to go back to, having to live in hurricane shelters, according to the Independent.
Smith explained that, while there are many people impacted in tremendous ways, many had the social mobility, resources and families to help them recover. Smith was, however, met with senior citizens who had completely lost their homes, as well a great many economically challenged people who had been living in trailers and low-lying areas prior to the storm left with no home and no resources to help them.
One-fourth of the people who Smith regularly counseled were also Red Cross volunteers, including bus drivers, kitchen staff, security and overnight responders. These were volunteers who were fatigued, exhausted and dealing with a great deal of stress working 12-hour shifts—sometimes longer—not including the commute to and from the locations they were volunteering at.
Smith described the shelters as a “simmering low level emergency room” where people were living in very close quarters to one another. The grace of the victims and the level of volunteering from the Red Cross staff were two of the most significant impacts of his experience.
“I witnessed countless acts of extraordinary kindness and compassion — not just by first responders, but also among the shelter residents themselves. I often say to our students: ‘It is not service if it is convenient,’” Smith said in a Q&A with LMU This Week.
Prior to the minimum deployment time of nine days that Smith volunteered, he had five hours of online training and one hour of admin work to do at Red Cross’ Los Angeles headquarters before being put on a plane to North Carolina just three days later.
“Like in all chaotic settings, there were people who just seem to have this extraordinary grace,” Smith said. “These were people who tended to not be on the fortunate side of life but nonetheless had such love and compassion and wisdom. And [they] were real modifiers in the culture of [chaos in the shelters].”