Following the destruction and loss of life caused Monday night when multiple tornadoes barreled across parts of the South, Roy Burnham left Friday for Jackson, Mississippi to help survivors cope in the aftermath.
The licensed clinical social worker and Red Cross volunteer is scheduled for a two-week stint to assist survivors, those who have been displaced, as well as first-responders and other relief workers, to deal with grief, stress and trauma.
Officially his role is that of mental health supervisor, which could mean any number of things once he's on the ground, said Burnham, 61, of Bay Shore.
"Flexibility" is an operative term for Red Cross volunteers, he said, as plans constantly change in response to emerging needs and newly available resources.
On Wednesday, Mississippi was declared a major disaster area, clearing the way for federal assistance for locations affected by Monday's storms, floods and tornadoes, The Associated Press said. During the Monday afternoon and evening hours, "multiple supercell thunderstorms developed," producing hail, damaging winds and multiple tornadoes in the Jackson, Mississippi, forecast area, said the National Weather Service.
Mississippi reportedly had 12 deaths.
Burnham is one of three Red Cross volunteers from Greater New York to be heading to the area. Besides local disasters, in his eight years as a volunteer he's been deployed to sites hit by hurricanes, as well as to an April, 2011, tornado outbreak in North Carolina.
A major facet of his work is helping those who have suffered loss to see that they can become resilient -- that they have "the ability to bounce back," he said.
Tornado survivors can experience "an intense feeling of vulnerability," he said, as the disaster strikes so suddenly giving next to no time to prepare. Add to that a "complicated" process of grieving for loved ones who have died, he said, this as a home may be destroyed and photographs and other mementos are no longer available to help with memorials.
First responders and relief workers also can experience "secondary or vicarious trauma," he said, based on the "horrendous" sights they see and stories they hear.
He advises they engage in self-care -- eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, all especially important to "help stay well adjusted" in such stressful times. That and finding ways to "create a mental escape," such as the journal writing he does -for his eyes only -- to help him "process the events of the day."
Burnham, who works in the burn unit of Stony Brook University Hospital, can already anticipate his feelings two weeks from now when he's scheduled to head back to Long Island.
It will be "a letdown," he said, as it's common for relief workers to feel that, "I should have stayed longer; I should have done more."