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Virginia - Coping with Disaster

On September 11,2001 (9/11), terrorists perpetrated one of the most heinous attacks on American soil ever committed in the history of the United States. The horrifying attack on and collapse of, the World Trade Center resulted in more than 3,000 deaths. In Virginia, the Pentagon sustained major structural damage from another attack, but, far worse, the human toll involved the death of 184 individuals, including 64 people on board American Airlines flight 77. Within two hours of the Pentagon attack, Arlington County declared a local emergency and then Governor Gilmore declared a state of emergency. The Arlington County Community Services Board requested crisis counselors from all 40 Community Services Boards across the Commonwealth to assist in its efforts to provide counseling and support to first responders and the community-at-large. The Pentagon – a seeming symbol of invincibility until 9/11- is one of the largest office buildings, with 23,000 employees who live in or near Northern Virginia. 

This immediate, staggering toll was only the beginning. The number of secondary victims continued to rise with anthrax attacks, the war on terror and continued terror alerts, hate crimes, and federal raids on the Muslim community. Further, the proximity to the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency and Washington, DC served to heighten concerns regarding safety in the extremely diverse population of Northern Virginia, where over a 100 different languages are spoken. The full impact of these events continued to evolve long after the initial attack as the string of events dealt a profound economic blow to Virginia's hotel, restaurant and tourism industries. 

As Virginia struggled to recover psychologically and economically, the serial sniper attacks began in the fall of 2002, in Maryland, Washington DC and Northern and then central Virginia. It was initially unclear as to what type of terrorism was at work – international or domestic – but it was terrorism. Many millions of people lived each day in fear that they would be killed going about their daily routine of trying to get gas for their cars or groceries for their families. Outside school activity was stopped and children were escorted to and from the school bus each day. In some schools, children practiced being huddled together in their classrooms quietly in the dark. At times, life almost seemed almost unbearable. When the killers were finally caught, there was an immediate sense of relief and optimism. Although the general threat of terrorism continued, the disruption to everyday life had ended. 

Then, as if all of this wasn't enough, in September of 2003, Virginia was struck by the greatest natural disaster in the history of the Commonwealth in September, 2003- Hurricane Isabel. Isabel caused 29 deaths and most of Virginia was declared a major disaster area. Fifty thousand coastal residents were evacuated from low lying areas. Wide spread power outages impacted 1.9 million people and thousands were without wireless or landline telephone services. 128 shelters were opened with over 13,000 residents at the peak of the immediate response. 

Through all of these events, Virginia's public behavioral health system has responded. This would not have been possible without the assistance provided by our federal partners at FEMA and SAMHSA and without the extraordinary and tireless efforts of staff from the involved community services boards and the outreach workers. The information found in our Disaster pages is an attempt to give tribute to those who have made the Commonwealth's response possible and to make it easier for the next behavioral health system to respond to disaster. 

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Helping to Heal: A Training on Mental Health Response to Terrorism

Helping To Heal ImageThe purpose of Helping to Heal: A Training on Mental Health Response to Terrorism is to better prepare mental health professionals and paraprofessionals for the early phases of response to a terrorist or mass trauma event.

This training kit was developed based on the unique experiences of the Community Resilience Project of Northern Virginia. It provides information, suggestions, and lessons learned from the staff’s response to 9/11 and subsequent terrorist events. Much of the information in this training has been adapted from existing mental health publications related to natural disasters, and reflects ways in which Community Resilience Project staff adapted that existing information for the mental health response to 9/11. 

Public Information and Education Template for Disaster Mental Health

“Educating the public and emphasizing the natural recovery process is important. Linking anticipated reactions and behaviors provides a measure of individual control and improves coping. Active coping strategies can be presented in multiple media formats, particularly as this has been shown to be one of the most protective strategies against ongoing distress.”

--The Psychological Impacts of Bioterrorism;
Molly J.Hall, Ann E. Norwood, Robert J. Ursano, and Carol S. Fullerton;
Biosecurity and Bioterrorism; August 28, 2003

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