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Carmel Fires: JFNA and ITC Ensure Trauma Victims are not Alone

April, 2011

Three months after wildfires raged through the Carmel region in Northern Israel, the affected areas are slowly recovering. Houses are being rebuilt, and grass, shrubs, and wildflowers have begun to grow on the forest floor. 

However, as the Federation-supported Israel Trauma Coalition (ITC) can testify, psychological trauma takes much longer to heal. The group’s latest efforts took place during the recent fires.

“We provide urgent assistance to people in the midst of a trauma. But we’re also there when the victim is still not sleeping at night and experiencing flashbacks four months later, when many have already forgotten,” says ITC’s director Talia Levanon.

In an inspired and ground-breaking move, ITC was established in 2001 by UJA Federation New York, in response to the lack of resources for dealing with psycho-trauma in Israel.

ITC, as a coalition of some 50 emergency organizations, provides direct care to people and emergency teams suffering from trauma, and works on strengthening community resilience and national preparedness in the event of an emergency.

With the support of the Jewish Federation movement, ITC has reached out quickly and effectively to Israelis suffering trauma during the Second Intifada, the escalation in the Gaza Region, the Disengagement from Gaza, the Second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead, and more recently, the Carmel wildfires.

ITC had been closely monitoring the fire in the Carmel region and implemented its emergency procedures protocol as soon as word was received about the burning of the Damon Prison bus. The Amcha organization, as the ITC member closest to the scene of the fire, served as a temporary emergency center together with CSPC and Natal, from where all emergency operations were coordinated in the initial phase.

ITC and its organizations were there to provide immediate assistance to people who managed to flee from the bus. “In the midst of an emergency, there is a lot of confusion and panic, and people do not understand what is happening,” Anat Terner, Vice President of Amcha explained. “Immediate intervention- calming a person down, assessing them, and explaining exactly what is happening, significantly decreases the chance of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) later on.”

ITC casts a far-reaching network of support. “It is not only the obvious physical victims who need help,” says Levanon. “There is an entire circle of people surrounding the victim that is also traumatized – the bystander, the rescue worker, the nurse, the family and the community.”

 Terner explains the nature of those requiring trauma services. “We worked with one firefighter who had entered the area of the fire with his truck. His team dragged out two people who were burning, and rinsed them off with water. The firefighter kept calling for help, for the victims to be taken to hospital, but there was no reception and no one could hear him. In the end, a vehicle came to transport the victims to the hospital, but it was too late - they later died from their burns.”

Levanon recalls a phone call she received from the bus company operating the Damon Prison bus: “I don’t know who I’m speaking to, but we need help,” the caller said. “The bus driver is missing, he was the only civilian on the bus, and there is no one to take responsibility for him. His wife is in Eilat on vacation. We don’t know what to do.”

ITC ensured that the wife was escorted home, arranged for a social worker to wait for her there, and organized someone to go and pick up their children. “We made sure that the family was supported the entire time,” Levanon says, “including the tragic time that when the DNA of her missing husband was sent to Jerusalem and identified.”

Levanon stresses that ITC works in tandem with government and welfare services.

“In the beginning, no one knew what was happening, and many emergency professionals, including fire-fighters and other volunteers were working for four days straight without a break. We were there to support them,” says Levanon. “The situation was very overwhelming. The strength of this coalition is that we are at the right place at the right time. It was invaluable when JFNA came to us and said: Do what you need to do, we will support you.”

ITC and its partner organizations -  Amcha, Selah, Natal, CSPC, ICTP, MAHUT and ERAN, continue to give support to survivors even now, when the fires have receded from public memory.

“The firefighters are a very neglected population,” says Levanon. “Despite all the talk about investing more money, nobody from the government has mentioned human resources. We are working hard on this particular issue. If a fireman has experienced trauma, does not talk about his experiences, starts experiencing stomach pains and ulcers, and cannot sleep at night, then it is much more cost effective to provide a personal response immediately, than to wait until these post traumatic symptoms manifest into something more serious later on.”

Workshops for people who have experienced trauma are an important part of ITC’s long-term intervention. “We don’t present the participants as victims,” says Levanon. “We see them as people who have gone through a difficult experience. This emboldens the public to come to us, where they can sit in a circle, talk about their experiences, and develop ‘coping mechanisms.”

ITC organizations are currently providing these workshops to people in the Carmel region. They provide emotional support for rescue workers, as well as for those who were evacuated, and those who lost their homes and businesses. Olga and Anna, the pregnant widows of two prison guards killed in the fire - both Russian immigrants – are currently receiving practical and emotional support from Russian-speaking SELAH volunteers, an ITC organization that provides emergency and long-term practical and emotional support to newcomers in Israel beset by personal tragedies.

Similarly, AMCHA provides emotional and social support to Holocaust survivors and more recently, to people who survived other traumas, such as the Second Lebanon War and the Carmel fires.

“For many of the Holocaust survivors who were evacuated during the fire,” says Terner, “it was, from a psychological perspective, as if World War II was happening all over again – the sudden departures, leaving everything behind, the roar of the planes, and flames.”

For Maya Shpigler, an elderly immigrant from the Former Soviet Union, the fires are still fresh in her memory. “When I smelled the smoke, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “When we realized that we had to go, we packed the barest essentials: medicines, documents and warm clothes. We ran out into the street, and the roads were so crowded, we could not even get a taxi.”

“I looked out the window and saw that the skies were red and black,” adds Bella, another elderly resident of Tirat HaCarmel. “I imagined that it was the end of the world. I felt helpless, like a child, just going where people were telling me: Go here, go there.”

These elderly residents of Tirat HaCarmel now regularly attend a workshop organized by AMCHA, which is held at the local community center for senior citizens. The workshops are helping the group come to terms with their experiences, and to gain better coping skills for the future.

 “I went to the first workshop thinking that I was weak, a coward,” says Maya, recalling the way her mouth went dry out of fear on that fateful day. “I learned that these symptoms were normal, and that it was OK to feel this way. We were reacting normally to an abnormal situation.”

Aside from providing direct care to people who went through unspeakable trauma, ITC also makes sure that regions are prepared for emergencies. “We have built city-wide networks that are ready to respond to a large scale emergency,” Levanon says. “There are five in the Gaza region financed by the Israeli government, and four in the North that are funded by the UJA Federation of New York.”

In a country like Israel, the ability to immediately deal with tragedy and stress is extremely important. “Israel is a country full of trauma, in the present and in our collective Israeli memory,” says Terner. “Every individual traumatic event is stacked on top of a previous one, and we need to work on this.”

In the region surrounding the Gaza Strip, in 2010 alone ITC has trained some 1300 rescue workers, hospital and welfare staff, and has put 1500 people through therapy. 

 “The trust and cooperation between ITC and JFNA was not born on the day of the fire,” says Levanon. “JFNA knows about our work, and it was easy for us to say “this is what we are doing, and this is what we need. It’s like an open door. Working with JFNA is a real partnership.”

By Devorah Nutovics

Dealing with the fire and its aftermath: Left to Right: Talya Levanon - ITC; Abu Rukun Salman - Carmel Fire Station; Dalia Sivan - Amcha; Zecharayev Benny - Carmel Fire Station; Bobbie Higer - JFNA Israel & Overseas Committee; Yaniv Kadosh - Carmel Fire Station; Rena Genn - Greater Miami Jewish Federation; Anat Terner - Amcha;
Second Row, Left to Right: Lee Perlman - JFNA; Viktor Ben-David - Carmel Fire Station

Participants of Trauma Relief Workshop provided by Amcha