Take Some Time, Take Care of Yourself, and Find a Local Disaster Buddy

An Art Salvage Expert Talks About Managing Stress in Emergencies

M.J. Davis is an art conservator, specializing in paper-based collections from her home in Newark, Vermont. Through her professional organization, the American Institute for Conservation, she has become involved in helping museums and similar organizations salvage and safeguard their collections after disasters, as part of the AIC Collections Emergency Response Team.

M.J. spoke with us about dealing with stress during the post-disaster cleanup and salvage process.

Stress is huge, in these situations — and that’s why you really want to do your preplanning. Because when you’re standing ankle-deep in water, it’s not the time to make any decisions about salvage. You should be thinking more about your personal safety at that time.

Being prepared means knowing what to do, having a list of phone numbers will allow you to react under these conditions. People tend to be in this “go mode,” where they will do something — because that’s the way to release pressure and make them feel better. But under these kind of conditions, making decisions can be difficult, and might not be the best thing to do. Often the best thing is to get somebody to help you think straight, and try to avoid making any major decisions until you feel better.

Again, it goes back to preplanning. If all my stuff gets wet, what vendor am I going to call? How much is it going to cost? Will my insurance company pay for it? Talk with some vendors prior to an emergency, so you know what to expect.

If an emergency does come, the first thing you’re going to need is a local  “disaster buddy” — somebody to talk to [N.B.  this person plays a different role than your out of town Disaster Buddy].The second thing you’re going to need is a cup of coffee or tea, and to sit down and cool your jets. The damage has happened; you have some time. What you need to do is calm down and think clearly. You can do this best with the help of somebody else.

This is what we encourage our teams, when they get to a site: Do a quick assessment, get a cup of coffee, and think about the next step. Make a plan. If you’re alone, sit down, take a break, make a list. Then have something to work from — then you can gather your thoughts and proceed in a clearer fashion. And if you start to feel confused again, sit down and take a break.

Also you need to remember to eat. You need to hydrate, to drink water. This is hugely important, because under stress you are burning up the calories right and left. You need to take care of yourself.

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Be aware of how events tend to unfold. After the disaster’s major impact, there can be a “honeymoon” phase. That’s the one that the press loves, where you’ve caught your wind and you’re saying, “Oh, I love my neighbors, this is great, our community’s pulling together.” Then you go from the honeymoon phase to the reality phase. “Oh my god, I’ve lost everything!” You can start to feel really depressed.

Then you get into the blame game: “Well, if they’d come over sooner, this wouldn’t have happened.” “The guy who installed my furnace did a crappy job, because my house burned down.”

To get through these phases, your local disaster buddy is key. Maybe have a couple of people who, if something happens, you can call and they will come over and assist. I have my disaster buddy, a woman that I teach with. When I go on site, she comes with me. We know each other well, and we work together really, really well under stressful situations. That’s just a good relationship to develop, with somebody who’s not necessarily a best friend. Look for somebody who’s level-headed, who counterbalances you.

You have approximately 57 chemicals in your body that get pumped into your body when you get an adrenaline rush or you’re really upset, and they compromise your thinking. At least realize that you’re not thinking straight right now. Take some time with this, and try to avoid making any major decisions until you feel better.