KEENE - The physical damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene has started to fade some, but the emotional toll it took on the people it affected still lingers.
That's where Project Hope comes into play.
Project Hope is a program administered by the state Office of Mental Health, with help from the Mental Health Association of Essex County and the Research Foundation of Mental Hygiene. Its aim is to provide counseling services and build a support network for people whose lives were impacted by Irene, which devastated communities along the AuSable River last August.
Members of Project Hope meet with Essex County officials in Keene on Thursday to discuss the emotional effects of Tropical Storm Irene. From left are Gretch Sando, program coordinator of Project Hope; Dale Dowdle, team leader of Project Hope; Mike Bigley, field coordinator of Project Hope, state Office of Mental Health; Randy Douglas, supervisor, town of Jay; Bill Ferebee, supervisor, town of Keene; Valerie Ainsworth, executive director, Mental Health Association of Essex County; and Steve Valley, director of Essex County Mental Health Services.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Morris)
Members of Project Hope met with town supervisors from Keene and Jay at the Keene Community Center on Thursday. Gretch Sando is program coordinator for Project Hope, which serves Essex and Clinton counties. She said the program started in October 2011 and has been performing door-to-door outreach since last November.
"Residents of the North Country are strong, resilient, independent, proud people, and asking for help doesn't necessarily come naturally, easily," Sando said. "What we're finding is that a lot of folks aren't asking for help.
"Everyone has a story: everyone was impacted by Tropical Storm Irene. If their own house or person wasn't impacted, someone they know, or a family member or what they observed touched them."
Project Hope has a team of crisis counselors who have been going to homes in communities like Keene Valley and AuSable Forks. The service is free, and the people who take advantage of it remain anonymous. Crisis counselors do not diagnose anyone, and no records are kept of any visits.
Dale Dowdle is a team leader for Project Hope and has worked as a crisis counselor since last year. He said some people he's talked to weathered the worst of Irene without any trouble, but later discovered that a tiny keepsake, like a photograph, was swept away.
He said those little things can trigger intense emotional reactions.
"We talked to a gentleman last week who has been displaced from his home - he lost everything," Dowdle said. "And he went to get a photo of a family member to show another family member who was visiting, and then it occurred to him that those photos don't exist anymore.
"It's still going on," he added. "People are getting better. I didn't know the people before this. Some are very resilient. Others are having a very hard time with this. And that's sort of the phase we're going into now: those who are still having a difficult time."
Counselors with Project Hope also help disaster victims assess their needs and connect with community resources. In some cases, counselors can assist people who are having trouble applying for aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Dowdle said Project Hope also educates flood victims about other programs like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
"These are people who have never gone to services before, so they're just not aware of them," he said. "This is what's happening. People were just already overwhelmed. They haven't even started to cope with this yet."
Mike Bigley of the state Office of Mental Health is a field coordinator for Project Hope. He said the program will run at least through the one-year anniversary of Irene.
"We are literally, system-wide, seeing 300 and something new people a week," Bigley said. "It's going to move down now as we transition. We will not stop doing the door-to-door, but there's so much of it that's already been done that as an activity it will slow down."
Bigley said in the months ahead, Project Hope will make public presentations where flood victims can share their stories with each other. He said as the one-year anniversary approaches, the program will hold events to honor the toughness and resiliency of communities hit by Irene.
"But those anniversary dates will also be dates we'll be searching for the PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) effect and people getting really upset," Bigley said.
Nearly 600 homes in Essex County were affected by Irene. Jay town Supervisor Randy Douglas said more than 70 of those homeowners have applied for FEMA's property acquisition program, in which the federal government buys out someone's damaged property.
Douglas said many of the people displaced by the storm have begun returning to their homes as the weather gets nicer.
"And they are finding things that they didn't realize that were damaged; it is an emotional impact on them because it's overwhelming," he said. "They are reaching out for help."
For more information about Project Hope, call 518-524-9616.