At the height of superstorm Sandy, Leigh Devine and her 8-year-old daughter waded through a flooded lobby in a total blackout to leave their apartment in lower Manhattan, and they have not returned. In fact, since then they've stayed with four different friends who live further uptown, on drier grounds.
They're not alone. The neighborhood below Manhattan's City Hall was battered by wind, rain and 14-foot surges. Although there's no official tally, many buildings along the edges of the East and Hudson rivers that suffered extensive wind and water damage have been evacuated indefinitely.
Consequently, thousands of downtowners are still wandering from couch to couch, showering at the gym and recharging cell phones at Starbucks. This downtown diaspora is beginning to take an emotional toll on displaced residents.
"I try to take it in stride and feel thankful no one lost a limb, but I have moments when I get upset and anxious," said Devine.
Ellen Tyson, a mother of two, has been told her building located at the tip of the island just across the street from Battery Park may not be habitable for at least another week – but it could also be months. Her building management said it's a moving target because they are still assessing the damage and coordinating with Con Ed and other utilities. She's been searching for a short-term sublet just in case it's the latter, but they're few and far between and prices are sky high.
"I feel superdisplaced like a vagabond – I don't even feel like putting on my makeup," she said. "I just don't feel like myself most of the time."
Holly Parker, a psychologist with Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., said all of these emotions are to be expected, considering everything that people are going through.
"Daily hassles can be draining in the best of circumstances. But when the basics we all take for granted, such as having a home, are lost, it can be completely disorienting," she said.
Parker said people like to feel a sense of safety and control. When they live through a natural disaster such as Sandy, it suddenly becomes clear they can't control everything.
"It can completely shake up your worldview."
Moving from place to place can be particularly hard on children, Parker said, because they don't have a lot of control over their lives to begin with and they're less able to wrap their heads around what's happening. Parents can allay their kid's fears by staying calm, providing comfort and maintaining routines as much as possible – but Parker warned that parents need to be mindful that this extra responsibility can ratchet up their own stress even higher.
Then there's the guilt. Many find it embarrassing to ask friends and family for a favor, particularly when it's something big, like a place to stay. As Devine pointed out, "You don't want to inconvenience anyone or become a burden, especially if you don't know how long it's going to be for."
But Parker said it's important to understand how much others want to help those in need. "Everyone wants to do something for those they care about," she said.
There may be a double dose of guilt for some. How can you gripe about temporary inconveniences when people in places like New Jersey, Staten Island and the Far Rockways in Queens have lost cars, homes, and in some truly heartwrenching cases, loved ones? Tyson, for example, admitted it's hard to complain when she knows what others are going through.
"People have homes that are flooded away forever. Some can't help themselves financially. We can always find another place and suck it up. What have I got to be angry about, really?" she said.
According to Parker, it's common for people to invalidate their own feelings with this sort of thinking. "On the one hand they can acknowledge they're feeling bad about their situation and on the other hand, they assume they don't have the right to feel the way they do because there are others who have it worse."
Recognizing that others have had a rougher go than you can be comforting. Parker said it makes you grateful for what you have left. But she cautioned against minimizing your own hardships.
"You still have the right to feel upset and anxious about everything you're going through."
Parker also encouraged anyone who's waiting out the aftereffects of the storm to give themselves credit for holding it together and doing what they need to do for themselves and their families to make it through.
"Keep looking forward and keep reminding yourself, It's not forever," she said.
That's just what Devine is trying to do.
"I just try to focus on the gratitude and remind myself that at the end of the day, this will all be a distant memory someday."