The Psychological Impact of Losing It All

When Galveston, Texas, resident Martin Carroll returned home to assess the damage left by Hurricane Ike, what he discovered was devastating.

"It don't look good back at home," said Carroll in a phone call to his family. "We've lost everything."

Walking through the soaked floors in his home, Carroll showed ABC's "Good Morning America" how all of his belongings had been destroyed.

"Everything in here was just floating," said Carroll. "The washer and dryer were upside down."

Of the millions who fled from Ike's treacherous path, some will return to find little or nothing left of their lives before the storm -- a realization that could affect many psychologically, mental health professionals told ABCNews.com.

"For those who were leading a marginal existence economically and psychologically before [a storm hits and they lose everything], it's going to be a huge hit," said Charles Goodstein, a psychiatrist at New York University Langone Medical Center.

"It's a truly devastating feeling – a sense of being helpless and feeling homeless – that suddenly happens overnight," said Goodstein.

Hurricane Causes Grief

The range of emotions for those who return to devastated areas after natural disasters is wide, according to mental health counselor Jack Herrmann, who is the senior advisor for preparedness at the National Association of County and City Health Officials based in Washington, D.C.

Herrmann, who coordinated the mental health response for the Red Cross in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and most recently during the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav, said that while many people do become upset at the discovery that they've lost everything, others are resilient enough to spring into action and start rebuilding almost immediately.

"There is a common misperception that people are going to fall apart and they are going to have lifelong psychological consequences," said Herrmann. "But the reality is that most people who experience traumatic events are psychologically resilient."

"People may be distraught initially but most are able to activate their internal resilience and do what they need to do to move on," he said.

But in the worst cases, individuals who are unable to wrap their minds around the overwhelming loss have trouble focusing on their future, said Herrmann.

"Others have difficulty trying to prioritize what they have to do because they are just so shocked or overwhelmed by the visuals of having lost everything or they may be trying to clean up and they'll find things that were most precious to them gone or destroyed," said Herrmann.

"I've seen people who are crying so hard and have no ability to look beyond where they are at that moment and consider what the steps are they need to take," he said.

Former New Orleans resident Valerie Bocage knows that feeling all too well – she lost everything during Hurricane Katrina, save for two pairs of jeans and two shirts.

"I felt like I was in shock," said Bocage. "I was hurt and it was just horrifying."

Bocage said that she too had trouble focusing, and at one point remembers telling aid workers that she didn't need any help – despite having had no where to live and no food to eat.

"I couldn't even think straight," she said.

How a person reacts to devastation and loss is often determined by their situation prior to the event, psychiatrist Goodstein said.

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