Recovering from a Natural Disaster

Published June 1, 2000

On August 17 last year, a devastating earthquake in Turkey killed nearly 18,000 people. On November 12th, when a second earthquake rocked the country, it became the worst natural disaster on record, with some 75,000 children homeless in an impact zone the size of Switzerland.

In an effort to begin the psychological recovery of thousands of school-age children, the United Nations/Unicef asked the Norwegian-based Center for Crisis Psychology (CCP) to take the lead. The CCP immediately contacted Robert D. Macy, director of community services at the Boston Trauma Center. Only 28 hours after the second earthquake struck, Macy stepped off an airplane in Turkey to find mass devastation and despair: Groups of displaced children lining up for soup, others playing in the mud and 3 a.m. darkness, twisted steel and concrete at every turn, and the dead piled in heaps.

The emotional anguish was “hard to describe,” Macy said, recalling an “incredible collective numbing” of the Turkish people–“so much in shock, so much in survival mode, they hadn’t been eating.” But he knew that children, who are especially vulnerable to post-traumatic stress, would require immediate attention.

Combining 20 years of research with hands-on observation and assessment, Macy developed a classroom-based psychosocial intervention program for Turkish guidance. In February, he led a specialized team on a return trip to Turkey, where he trained 600 Turkish guidance counselors on the program.

Macy’s program was so well received that the United Nations may have him write an international protocol for disaster recovery based on it.