Months after Hurricane Sandy slammed the greater New York area and caused billions of dollars in damage, Corps of Engineers employees continue supporting the city and state as they recover from the Oct. 29 disaster.
To help cope with the recovery effort, as well as being away from friends and family during this past holiday season, the Corps of Engineers deployed two peer supporters from the Critical Incident Stress Management, or CISM, team to support the recovery effort. Kevin Ewbank, Rock Island District park ranger, and Valerie Mavis, Albuquerque District park ranger, navigated the New York traffic searching for the nearly 110 Corps employees offering smiles, laughs and treats from the "green bag of goodies."
With each stop, the two-person team greets each Corps employee with the opportunity to reach their hand into the bag filled with healthy snacks. Ewbank said the act serves as a great ice breaker as well as providing a coping mechanism to stress. "Eating healthy is a great way to deal with stress," he said. "We’re just trying to encourage that."
In addition to the snacks, the team takes time to talk to each employee to see how they are doing. Ewbank said people in stressful situations are like balloons and the stressors are the air filling up the balloon. He added that talking to the employees helps remove the air. He said normal people dealing with abnormal situations can lead to stress, and the team is here to help relieve the stress.
"We are listening and looking for specific warning signs during our visits," he said. "If these are found, we utilize our training to help, or refer them to an employee assistance program, if needed." Ewbank said that while the peer supporters have specialized training to recognize stress reactions and symptoms among Corps employees; he emphasized that they are peers.
During a visit to Staten Island, near Midland Beach, the team did more than talk to employees. While visiting the volunteers at one of the temporary storage sites, the peer support team noticed some ornaments and U.S. flags had fallen from their locations around the make-shift "Tree of Hope." The tree has become a focal point for the community’s rebuilding efforts with students at a local elementary school creating paper ornaments and a group of military veterans placing flags around the entire site.
One by one the team picked up and placed the ornaments back on the tree and refastened the flags to the chain link fence. Above the tree, an American flag continued to fly while showing the wear and tear of the storm that destroyed so many homes. With the red colors bleeding into the white stripes – creating a dull pink color – and torn edges fluttering against the Atlantic Ocean breeze, Ewbank said the flag "represents a community that is tattered, but [it’s] intact."
Keeping employees intact is one of the purposes of the CISM team. Mavis said the team has spoken with several Corps employees that are missing friends and family over the holiday season, but she added that the employees are taking comfort knowing their efforts are going toward helping people rebuild. "Seeing how people are able to accept the disaster is amazing," she said.
Ewbank and Mavis are part of a CISM team that includes more than 40 employees across the country. What started as an idea from a park ranger in the Corps’ Tulsa District in 2004 has evolved to a team that is prepared to respond to any type of crisis from a drowning to a disaster response mission. "We’re not supposed to be the clinical support specialist," said Ewbank. "Rather, we serve as the friend that will listen, if needed."
He added that team tries to let everyone know that the feelings an employee may have during a crisis are normal, and they try to offer tips to deal with the stress. "Taking care of our own is important," said Ewbank. "If we don’t take care of them, how can they take care of others?"