Hope is Her Favorite Four-Letter Word

Alumna Mary-Michael Levitt surveys the landscape after a disaster, and opens her arms, ears and heart to survivors.

By Kenna Caprio
Fairleigh Dickinson University alumna Mary-Michael Levitt has been a mental-health responder with the American Red Cross since 2001. In the aftermath of tragedy, natural disaster or otherwise, she’s on the ground to provide immediate comfort to survivors. (Photograph by: John Emerson)

There’s nothing left.

Houses gone, cars swept away, belongings storm-tossed, scattered and tattered. All that remains are the people — the survivors of hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires or floods, who have to rebuild their lives, their homes, their towns and themselves. She knows. She’s been there: after the wildfires in California; the tornado in Joplin, Mo.; the floods in Mississippi; the earthquake in Haiti; Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Irene. “Once I connect with people and their individual stories, debris piles take on personal meaning,” says alumna Mary-Michael Levitt, BA’73 (Ruth), MA’86 (Metro). She is a disaster mental-health supervisor with the American Red Cross.

The tornado that hit Joplin, Mo., in 2011 left a path of destruction nearly a mile wide. “As far as the eye could see — everything was gone. The local hospital moved off of its foundation. Walmart and Home Depot roofs flattened like pancakes. Once local residents were allowed to visit their properties, they had trouble finding their streets because all identifying markers — street signs, mailboxes, trees, parks — had been destroyed,” says Levitt.

“Still,” she continues, “miracles happen. Walking through a neighborhood on outreach, I came upon a young couple. All that was left of their home was a concrete slab and a mountain of debris. Before the tornado, the wife had taken off her wedding ring and put it on the kitchen table. Sifting through the debris they found the ring. They took it as a sign that all would be well.”

In the immediate aftermath of tragedy, mental-health responders provide psychological first aid to reduce initial distress, foster short- and long-term adaptive functioning and help people cope.

Disaster relief comes in many forms. American Red Cross volunteers give out food, toiletries and other essential items, plus clean-up kits, to those in need. (Photographs by: Chuck Haupt/American Red Cross)

“Despair compounds the trauma and makes for secondary trauma,” says Levitt, a licensed marriage and family therapist. Shock and disbelief are common, no matter the disaster. “The sooner that someone who has suffered a trauma can get assistance, the more hopeful they can be. With the right support it quickly turns to, ‘We can do this. We can rebuild, and we’ll be stronger than ever,’” says Levitt. “The Red Cross is so efficient — they make an immediate connection with the community.”

On the Ground

Walking the streets after a disaster, I’ve felt a mixture of compassion, empathy and focus,” she says. “Very often we become active listeners to survival stories, a process which provides healing through validation, connection and caring.”

“It’s normal to feel frightened, sad, anxious and disconnected. Traumatic events are usually so overwhelming and frightening that safety and trust are shattered.” — Mary-Michael Levitt

After the 2017 California wildfires, Levitt made neighborhood rounds as residents sifted through the charred remains of their homes. One couple told this story: “It was after bedtime, and we heard horns honking and someone screaming. We looked out the window and our yard was on fire. We ran for our lives.”

Mental-health volunteers complete two-week rotations on the ground, with many coming from out of town or out of state to assist local Red Cross volunteers who might be dealing with the disaster on a personal level. Typically, mental-health volunteers will take a shift at a shelter or be assigned to an affected neighborhood.

Most shelters are simple — set up in a school gymnasium, perhaps, and staffed with volunteers to provide housing and the basics. “Blankets, cots, pillows and meals. Additionally, the shelter has a nurse’s station and confidential spots for mental-health care, child care, spiritual care and caseworkers.” It’s overwhelming. “Imagine losing your home and car, bank, license, birth certificate, social-security card,” says Levitt.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and FDU alumna Mary-Michael Levitt share a hug at the Seaside Heights fire department after Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey in 2012. (Photograph courtesy of Levitt)

The volunteers assigned to visit affected areas are a vital link to the recovering community. “During our visits we simply ask, ‘Have you been drinking enough water?’ I never go anywhere without an extra bottle of water to give away,” says Levitt. “We connect with people just by saying hello, asking how they are doing and seeing if they need anything.”

Mental-health volunteers also facilitate contact with family and friends. Survivors need an outlet, a confidant with whom they can share their feelings. “It’s normal to feel crazy, disconnected or numb,” says Levitt. “Clients can experience fatigue, headaches, changes in appetite and either feel like crying or having an outburst of anger.” Psychological first aid is about providing comfort. “Even though it feels impossible, it’s not. You can feel better,” she says. “Each step of the recovery is designed to build resilience not only for the individuals, but also for the whole community.”

In the Beginning

A moment of hesitation and helplessness drove Levitt to become a first responder. Years ago, before going to a New York Yankees game with friends, her friend’s father just slumped over. “He was in cardiac arrest. Everyone flew into action, and I just stood there,” she says.

Afterwards, she decided, “I’m never going to be in a position like that again and not know what to do.” Levitt took a first aid and CPR course, eventually becoming an EMT. She completed disaster training in August 2001.

Her first assignment was 9/11, escorting bereaved families through a daylong visiting process. Loved ones could walk through Wall Street to a special platform over the wreckage and leave mementos and photographs at a memorial wall. “We stayed with the families to provide them with whatever they needed.”

Caring for others in extreme circumstances is overwhelming, so mental-health responders must practice self-care, too. Outside of her office, the Riverview Counseling Center in Hackettstown, N.J., and her disaster response work, Levitt’s 4-year-old grandson and her 1983 Volkswagen Vanagon bring her peace and road trips. She’s an avid outdoorswoman who travels cross-country each year.

“Talk to people after a disaster, and it’s all about rebuilding. There’s a great coming together and energy of community,” says Levitt. “There is hope. This is not permanent. There is a way out.”

Ed. note: A version of this article first appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of FDU Magazine.