The Psychological Effects Of Earthquakes Are Just As Real As The Physical Effects

Jul 8, 2019
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Southern California town of Ridgecrest is recovering after large back-to-back earthquakes late last week. The first on Thursday was a 6.4 magnitude quake. Then came a stronger 7.1 quake on Friday. Now people in this desert community northeast of Los Angeles are cleaning up and checking their homes and businesses for damage. No major harm or serious injuries were reported, but as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, the psychological effects are very real.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Pat Murphy and a friend were checking out the new seismic scars in the Mojave Desert near the quake's epicenter, marveling at Mother Nature's power. But the retired UPS worker from the nearby town of Inyokern is feeling deeply frazzled after days of constant aftershocks.

PAT MURPHY: I don't get much sleep right now. And any kind of a movement, I'm about ready to jump outside and stay outside. I turned off the gas to my house last night. I turned it back on today because it seemed like it's going to calm down. But it's just a bad feeling to have that you don't know what's going to happen.

WESTERVELT: Of all the challenges these communities face, the psychological fallout of the two big quakes may be the toughest.

JED MCLAUGHLIN: There's no shame in talking to somebody that might have an answer that you need to hear.

WESTERVELT: That's Jed McLaughlin, Ridgecrest's chief of police. The father of three says he's seen in his own home that the near-constant rattling has taken a toll. He says he didn't realize the emotional distress it was causing until a 4.4 aftershock hit and his children scurried toward the front door.

MCLAUGHLIN: My youngest comes over, and he just leans up against me. I can feel him shaking. And then I realize that, as I paid attention, that, oh, there's something wrong here, and they're hurting.

WESTERVELT: The police chief is hardly alone. As one official told a packed public forum last night, the stress is real, adding, maybe you just don't feel like yourself. Mimi Teller is with the American Red Cross.

MIMI TELLER: A lot of people - their children were scared, and they didn't know what to expect next. There was talk about a 6.0 aftershock being a 50% possibility. And all of this information put a lot of fear in people. Plus, the noise and the shaking - it's so disruptive to people, and they're afraid.

WESTERVELT: County and Red Cross officials are encouraging people, if needed, to seek relief with one of the many mental health professionals they brought in, human or canine.

KATHRYN MACKIE: We have Maggie, who is a black Lab. We have Bentley, who is a Red Fox Lab.

WESTERVELT: Kathryn Mackie and her colleagues give some water to some of the half-dozen therapy dogs that have deployed here. They're with the nonprofit group Marley's Mutts from nearby Tehachapi.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG LAPPING WATER)

WESTERVELT: The group helps rescue and train dogs for therapy services after disasters and other events.

VAL BOWMAN: Let's go. Ready to go? Take your vest off.

WESTERVELT: Val Bowman with the group says she's seen the dogs have a positive cascade effect to help de-stress kids and parents alike. When the group arrived over the weekend, she says they saw a lot of children surfing on their digital devices or playing online games.

BOWMAN: So they're not interacting with anybody else. They're just in their own worlds. And so once we started to get them to interact with the dogs and then interact with the balloon guy, we really started to see them come out of their shells and play games and have fun. And that relieves their anxiety levels, which relieves their parents' anxiety levels, which gets the parents interacting with their kids. It gets everybody feeling a little bit better.

WESTERVELT: And this is just the start of the city's recovery, physical and mental. Experts say the trauma can surface and last long after the recovery crews have gone home. A stream of aftershocks continue to shutter out of the desert today, likely signaling more busy days ahead for the therapy dogs of Tehachapi.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Ridgecrest, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.