As Spokane’s ice storm disaster stretches on, we’re all feeling a little edgy.
But it’s especially bad in the shelters, where nearly two dozen people have been removed for treatment of a condition mental health workers call “shelter shock.”
It’s a state of extreme mental agitation that causes disorientation and rising blood pressure, says Eastern State Hospital psychologist R.J. Smith.
As the emergency unfolds with no end in sight, the trauma worsens for some people, particularly the elderly.
Smith, a Red Cross volunteer, saw the same problem in 1994 when he helped victims of the Los Angeles earthquake in shelters.
“It’s an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and loss,” Smith said Sunday as he counseled the stranded at the Libby Center shelter in Spokane’s East Central neighborhood.
Volunteers tried to give the elderly their own space away from noisy children, but the senior citizens still had problems, said Gleyn Bledsoe, shelter manager.
“Many are used to being by themselves and doing for themselves,” he said. “They are not used to large crowds. They are extremely nervous. They just aren’t comfortable here.”
One woman suffering from hypothermia refused to stay at the center after she was treated briefly. “We just couldn’t keep her,” Bledsoe said.
Ann Mills was forced to seek shelter at Libby because her West Mallon apartment has no electricity.
“This is my fifth day in the shelter. It has been really stressful,” Mills said.
While Mills, a former mental health worker, has been able to cope, the woman who settled in next to her last week could not.
“She sat stiffly upright all night. She insisted someone had snuck into her basement and deliberately turned the power off. She was having paranoid delusions. I hardly slept that night,” Mills said.
As the blackout dragged on, victims of shelter shock are being taken to St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute.
The institute treats people who’ve suffered traumatic injuries. Of the 22 elderly storm victims admitted last week, 18 remained Sunday, said administrator Kathy Lamphere.
The St. Luke’s staff is volunteering to help the elderly regain their strength and their mental health, Lamphere said.
“We try to reassure them that things will get better,” she said.
Mills will have to move to another shelter this week if power to her apartment isn’t restored. So will 32 others who remained at the Libby Center Sunday.
“They’re starting to call each other ‘inmates,”’ said Walt Mabe, another shelter manager.
The shelter closed Sunday afternoon as Spokane School District 81 officials prepared to reopen schools this week. Three other centers are open, and Red Cross officials say they’re prepared to open more if necessary.
Leaving the shelter doesn’t mean the psychological stresses are over, Smith said.
People returning home may have to deal with tree and roof damage, spoiled food and other problems. Emotions may explode with as much force as bursting pipes, Smith said.
That’s true for everyone - not just shelter residents - as a disaster drags on, he said.
“If they don’t yet have power and their neighbor does, they’ll ask, ‘Why me?’ A second week will start a set of new stresses,” he warned.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: OPEN SHELTERS Three Red Cross shelters remain open in Spokane County: Spokane Convention Center, 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. United Methodist Church, 10422 E. Main. The Moose Lodge, 6363 N. Lidgerwood.