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How one Steuben County family deals with the emotional aftermath of flooding

Flood Trauma Mixdown

BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG)—Rain is a soothing sound for many people, but after flooding in Steuben County this summer, some hear it differently. It has become retraumatizing for one family who lived through it.

Every time the rain comes, their kids worry it will flood again.

Jeanelle Cary-Loucks’ house was one of hundreds that flooded in August.

“Now every time we see it rain, or a flood warning,” Cary-Loucks said. “We get scared and we flee our house.”

The family lived in Tuscarora, right along the creek. When its bank flooded in August due to heavy rains caused by Tropical Storm Fred, water filled the yard and came into the house.

A rescue boat carried them a few houses down where it was drier. It landed there with a thud, and Cary-Loucks said she fractured her tailbone in the impact.

“We were on a really loud boat, which was going really fast and it was dark,” Cary-Loucks recalled.

At the time, they did not know what they would come back to.

The family lost both of their cars in the flood and damaged all of the wood under their home. Because they rented their house, the family was not eligible for much of the assistance that was available to homeowners for repairs.

But it is the effects of the night of the flood that still stick out in Cary-Loucks’ mind. She said it was terrifying for her and her young kids, who were ages four and five at the time.

Cary-Loucks said her five-year-old daughter has always been shy and sometimes sensitive to noise, but that did not affect her much at school or at home. That was, not until the flood and the loud boat that rescued them.

“It was 11:30 at night, she didn't know what was going on,” Cary-Loucks said. “So I think that really triggered and made things ten times worse, because she had already had some of those issues before.”

Now, getting her daughter to go to school every morning is a battle. Cary-Loucks said her daughter has been anxious, and bawls uncontrollably, saying she does not want to go.

Cary-Loucks does all she can to calm her down but it is a challenge; even more so when both kids are frightened.

“Every time they see water up on the river when we’re driving, they say, ‘Oh, it’s going to flood, look at all the water,’” Cary-Loucks said. “And what do you say to them? You have to calm them down, but when you’re already on high alert and scared about it, it’s difficult.”

She said she is calm because she has to be the parent in these situations, but Cary-Loucks has dealt with her own emotions and trauma from the flood.

According to child psychologist Betty Lai, It can be hard for parents who have also experienced a disaster to process those fears in front of their kids.

“They're trying to cope as well, with their own feelings,” said Lai. “While helping a child manage their distress.”

Lai has studied children's mental health for nineteen years, focusing on how kids and their families cope with natural disasters.

Parents might worry sharing their own feelings after a traumatic event might stress their children out even more. But Lai said children pick up on their parents’ emotions.

"They’re not hidden,” said Lai. “No matter how well we as parents think we might be shielding children from some of those feelings.”

Lai said among the children she interviewed and studied, 50% reported post traumatic stress symptoms after experiencing a natural disaster.

“That can look like things such as having difficulty sleeping,” said Lai. “Having a lot of nightmares about the event, hyper-vigilance.”

Children are especially vulnerable during natural disasters because they are dependent on their caregivers. Young children are also still developing their understanding of the world. Lai said this can make it harder to contextualize natural disasters and how often they occur.

If parents hold back, kids may worry there was something more they do not know about, or expect the same, traumatic outcome again.

Lai said seeing parents acknowledge their own fears, and then show their child how they cope, could help ease these fears.

“It’s helpful to say to your child ‘I’m feeling really stressed right now,’” said Lai. “And I’m going to get a cup of tea because I think that will help me feel a little better.”

Lai emphasized that children react to natural disasters in all sorts of different ways. Parents know their own children, and what works best for them, given their age.

Ultimately, Lai said adults should ask children how they are feeling, and work through the trauma together.