Mental Health Counselors Address Enormous Grief From Surfside Families

Jul 6, 2021
Originally published on July 7, 2021 5:53 am

Hundreds of rescue workers are still searching for survivors in the rubble of the collapsed Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla. As of Tuesday, 32 people have been reported dead, and 113 are still missing.

Mental health counselors are also on the scene, helping families whose loved ones have been confirmed dead and those still waiting for news of missing loved ones.

"It's getting more emotional for them," says Sandy Ala, a licensed clinician and director of case management at Jewish Community Services of South Florida.

As days have passed since any survivors have been pulled out, and with more than 100 people still unaccounted for — and after Miami-Dade County officials made the decision to demolish the remaining structure on Sunday — Ala says conversations with waiting family members have become more difficult.

"They are coming to terms with what is the end result," Ala says. "It's a tough place to be right now."

Shortly after the building collapsed, the Red Cross and other agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency opened the Family Assistance Center nearby. Ala says JCS has been on the ground since the very beginning, trying to provide a comforting presence to those seeking answers.

"I think just physically being there, knowing that our presence is always there, they can walk over and someone will be available to talk to them, just to get through that moment," she says.

The center is open to help families and people affected by the building collapse. When a person comes into the FAC, they're greeted by a "navigator," who does a preliminary assessment of their needs and guides them to the agencies that can help. Sometimes that help is providing something to eat or drink, assisting with temporary housing, or making a connection with community organizations offering aid. Other times, help is a little harder to give.

"We don't have the answers," Ala says, "and that's where their mindset is right now: 'Why did this happen?' "

Ala has experience assisting victims of Hurricane Irma, which caused widespread destruction in 2017, and she knows the road to healing will be long.

"We're here now for immediate crisis counseling, and we will be here for the long haul," she says. "This will be a long process: It won't be months, it will be years."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Hundreds of rescue workers are still searching for survivors in the rubble of the collapsed Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla. As days pass since any survivors have been pulled out, and with so many people still unaccounted for, mental health counselors have also been sent in. They are helping families waiting for news of missing loved ones, as well as families whose loved ones have been confirmed dead.

Sandy Ala is one of those counselors, with Jewish Community Services of South Florida. And when we spoke today, she told me they have set up a physical site, where families can walk in.

SANDY ALA: It's really very organized at this point now, where they come in - there's a navigator that does a preliminary assessment to see what their needs may be, and then they bring them in to the family assistance center, where there are many professional agencies providing different types of services. But Jewish Community Services is the primary mental health supporter for those individuals looking for their family members and waiting for news.

KELLY: What are those conversations like, the ones that you've been having?

ALA: So there's many different types of conversations - mostly just people looking for answers, wondering why these things have happened, hoping to hear some good news of their family members, their loved ones, you know, being found and surviving. As the days go on, the conversations become harder and more difficult. They're grieving, and they need support.

KELLY: You said so many people are looking for answers, and that's got to be such a tough conversation to have when there are no answers. You don't have them. All you can do is sit - sit and listen.

ALA: Right. Exactly. And we don't have the answers. And I think that's just where their mindset is right now. Why did this happen? Why the - why, you know, some people were fortunate to be rescued while others are, you know, yet to be found. Waiting, you know, day by day, are they going to get any confirmation of resolution to their loved one being found? And it's very hard. And I think, as the days go on, it's getting more emotional for them. They're coming to terms with what is the end result. As I'm sure you're aware, they imploded the building two days ago. That just brings another level of heartache and wondering, and they really do need support from us and anyone that can provide it. And there are a lot of people out there willing to assist, but it is a tough place to be right now.

KELLY: What words seem to help, seem to reach people, in such a difficult moment?

ALA: That we're there for them because there's really not much else anyone can say to make it any different. I've received a lot of feedback from individuals that we're working with, just gratitude and humble that were there - I think just physically being there, knowing that our presence is always there. They can walk over. Someone will be available to talk to them just to get through that moment, or they need to call someone in the afternoon, evening, night - 24/7, we're there.

KELLY: What kind of needs are people going to have in terms of mental health, in terms of being able to talk to somebody going forward in the longer term?

ALA: So we're anticipating - and we really have already started this - so anyone that comes to see us at JCS or calls 211, we're creating a contact with them, staying in contact, seeing what they need. So a lot of what we're doing right now is assisting with temporary housing for the families and/or the residents. We are discussing with them that counseling is an option, that we're here now for immediate crisis counseling and that we will be here for the long haul. It won't be months. It will be years.

KELLY: Sandy Ala, with Jewish Community Services of South Florida., thank you for taking the time.

ALA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.