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Damage from catastrophes may only have just begun

MONTREAL - Victims of current catastrophes in Canada could spend years battling the painful, psychological effects of losing their wordly possessions, according to post-disaster research.

MONTREAL - Victims of current catastrophes in Canada could spend years battling the painful, psychological effects of losing their wordly possessions, according to post-disaster research.

Mental health experts warn that the aftermath of natural disasters — like major floods and fires — can inflict deep, long-lasting psychological injuries for victims.

A researcher, who studied the effects of the devastating 1996 floods in Quebec's Saguenay region, said other stressors begin to sink in once the initial shockwaves of a catastrophe have passed.

Danielle Maltais said victims will shift their focus to concerns like lost personal items, financial worries and determining where they will live next.

"These people will find themselves all alone with their grief, with the clean-up they have to do, with the different stressors that they will have to overcome," Maltais, a professor at the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi, said Wednesday.

"This is also a period that is quite conducive to developing health problems."

Those problems, she added, can include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. These psychological wounds can eventually lead to physical consequences, like insomnia, heart disease and excessive weight gain or loss.

Thousands of people have been forced from their homes this spring following record-breaking floods in Manitoba and Quebec, where waters continued to rise Wednesday.

Earlier this week, wildfires also reduced a huge swath of the Albertan community of Slave Lake to ash, leaving many citizens homeless.

Maltais co-authored several studies on people affected by the July 1996 flash floods that struck the Saguenay River valley — an event that caused at least 10 deaths and forced more than 15,000 from their homes.

The research compared the lives of victims with non-victims in the region at different intervals over several years following the floods.

She said the study found that 75 per cent of the people deeply affected by the floods developed new health problems, or saw existing ones get worse.

Maltais recalled that significant psychological problems still existed among the victims eight years later.

Another expert noted how studies have shown that residual psychological effects can persist for 15 years after a natural catastrophe.

"Clearly, they're not as intense, and maybe they don't have the same number of symptoms they had at the beginning, but it's not unheard of that these kinds of events can have a long-term effect on people," said Michael Ellery, a psychology professor at the University of Manitoba.

"It's actually pretty normal to experience some post-traumatic stress effects after something like that."

Quebecers who live along the surging Richelieu River, where streets have been knee-deep in water for weeks, admit their battles against the floods have been draining — physically and emotionally.

Donald Racine, who was evacuated weeks ago from his home in St-Blaise-sur-Richelieu, had hoped to return when water levels finally dropped last weekend.

But then they started to climb again.

"It's very hard," said Racine, who has four pumps sucking water out of his basement and sandbags stacked against the windows.

"Mostly because we had hope — (the water) started to drop — but now it's going back up."

The retired man, who's staying with his daughter, said the most stressful part is being away from home, not knowing if it's filling up with water.

"It's really hard when you're not in your own house," he said. "We went to our daughters' (house), but even then we feel that we were disturbing them."

Meanwhile, social workers and counsellors from the regional health authority have been visiting residents to see if they need assistance.

They have met with citizens who chose to stay home and fight the floods as well as locals who left because they had lost everything, said a director for the agency.

"People are dealing with lots of anxiety, dread — people are worried," Ruth Sanssouci said Wednesday.

"But at the same time I think I should say that people are strong."

Sanssouci believes most people have an internal strength to help them bounce back from disasters.

She noted that statistics show only about five per cent of victims will develop serious psychological issues down the road.

Still, she said many residents have barely slept in recent weeks as they monitor the pumps that keep the river water from infiltrating their homes.

Each person's experience — and personality — will dictate how the disaster affects them in the years ahead, Sanssouci added.

"People who are retired and who worked their entire lives to have a house next to the water, obviously it's more difficult for them if they lose everything," she said.

"But at the same time they are still alive, they are healthy."

Sanssouci said health workers will continue to counsel those in need for as long as it takes.

That's the key to helping people avoid long-term issues, Maltais, said, adding that authorities must help people clean up their properties and rebuild after they've returned home.

"We definitely need regular support for these people — at the same time we need to bring them tangible aid and emotional aid," she said.

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