ROUNDTABLE: The Social Work Response to the Harlem Explosion

Harlem explosion

This past Wednesday at 9:31 a.m., two huge gas explosions rocked East Harlem, leveling two buildings. Eight people died, and more than 60 were injured—at least eight of them children. More than a hundred residents of the affected area remain homeless. Mayor Bill de Blasio called it a “tragedy of the worst kind,” and Rep. Rangel referred to it as "Harlem's 9/11."

The site of the explosion, 116th St. and Park Avenue, is, of course, not far away from the Social Work Building. As Dean Jeanette Takamura wrote to students in the immediate aftermath: “I know that many of you were personally shaken by what happened, perhaps because of the proximity of field placements or because you know people and organizations in the neighborhood." She also acknowledged the grief felt by the School's colleagues at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, who "are attempting to deal with the loss of one of their support staff.”

Over the weekend, we reached out to two full-time faculty members and one staff member (who is an alum) at the School for comments on a range of questions, in particular having to do with the role of the social work community in aiding the recovery.

The participants:

Anne Conway, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work

Moira Curtain, MS’89, LCSW-R, Director of Advising; U.N. Representative for the International Association for Schools of Social Work (IASSW); co-chair for Social Work Day at the United Nations

Lynn Michalopoulos, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work

First thoughts?

Anne Conway: I thought about my friends who live within blocks of the explosion. Fortunately, they were okay despite being on the street at the time. Others, as we know, were not as fortunate, and I immediately began to think of all the young children who were affected. Although it is not commonly recognized, our research shows that young children can be traumatized by disasters even if they do not have language and cognitive abilities to understand what has occurred. Even toddlers can experience stress-related symptoms such as sleeping difficulties and excessive crying. Parents can also experience heightened stress due to concern about the well-being of their children.

Moira Curtain: I heard about the explosion a few hours after it happened, when I was in a meeting. I was worried about the people in the two buildings and those in the surrounding area. I was also concerned about CSSW students living and undertaking internships in the area. A plan was put into action to identify and contact these students.  I live and work in the neighborhood and could see the heavy smoke clouds for hours. I kept hoping the people who were reported missing would turn out to be alive. In the following days the fatality rate increased, which I found tragic.

Lynn Michalopoulos: My immediate reaction was one of disbelief and shock. Like Anne and Moira, I kept hoping everyone involved was okay.

“Harlem’s 9/11”?

Lynn Michalopoulos: I can understand how individuals may refer to this as “Harlem’s 9/11”. Oftentimes traumatic events can trigger the feelings and emotions of previous traumatic experiences (e.g., intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, sleep disturbance, etc)—especially when the events have similarities. That said, the underlying cause of the East Harlem explosion was obviously quite different.

Moira Curtain: There are similarities. As with 9/11, the community has been shattered by destruction and loss of lives. Further, many people are now homeless and have to recover essential and basic needs for themselves and their families. Aside from basic necessities, families also lost irreplaceable family items such as photos, children's art, and documents. And the resilience of the people who have been affected by this disaster will be apparent, just as it was in the wake of 9/11. The Harlem community is strong and will be the core of its recovery.

Anne Conway: It is not at all surprising that some members of the community likened it to the trauma New Yorkers experienced on 9/11 or initially thought that it may be the result of a terrorist attack.

Social workers as first responders

Moira Curtain: Disaster response is a growing field where social work is a natural fit. Social workers are trained to engage and assess the needs of people and their communities and have the appropriate interventions, resources, and education for both short- and long-term recovery efforts. Some social workers will be referring survivors to mental health services, along with physical and social services, while others will be providing direct services to affected individuals and families. The primary goal is to have the person who has suffered trauma get to their pre-disaster level of coping, after which they can create a “new normal.”

Anne Conway: Social workers can serve in myriad ways. Those working with children and adult survivors can provide a supportive space for them to process their trauma and grief. They may even wish to consult with Dr. Kathy Shear at our School. She has designed a state-of-the-art program to address issues of complicated grief that can sometimes arise following traumatic events. Even after the traumatic event resolves, considerable efforts will be needed to help rebuild the community and the lives of those affected. More than 100 individuals are currently placed at shelters, having lost everything they owned. Where will they end up living in the long term, and how will they obtain clothing and other necessities? Social workers in administration and community development can play a leading role advocating for emotional and financial support for individuals and families. The development of a fund for the victims of the Harlem Explosion should be an immediate priority.

Lynn Michalopoulos: I second everything Moira and Anne have said. Social workers can help assist with emergency housing and financial resources, including coordinating insurance benefits, for the individuals and families who were displaced by the explosion. They can also provide mental health services for the survivors, for the members of the East Harlem community, and for friends and family of those who did not survive, as well as for the wider NYC community.

Self-care measures for first responders

Lynn Michalopoulos: Working with trauma survivors is extremely rewarding but can also be challenging. Concerning the latter: exposure to trauma narratives increases the risk of developing both secondary traumatic stress (STS) and vicarious trauma (VT). STS is a response similar to PTSD—it occurs as a reaction to hearing about a specific traumatic event. VT, by contrast, results from exposure to ongoing and multiple trauma narratives. It involves a negative and permanent shift in the social worker’s view of the world (it can also include symptoms of PTSD). Research has shown that social workers with less experience and social support are more at risk for developing both STS and VT.

Anne Conway: I’m so glad to be participating in this roundtable with Lynn. She and other Columbia Social Work professors have documented the importance of social support in coping with vicarious stress and trauma that social workers often experience. Their work also demonstrates that early-career social workers are particularly vulnerable to vicarious trauma. This underscores the important role of quality supervision and other sources of professional support. Practices such as mindfulness, self-compassion, and health promotion are particularly important during challenging times. Our outstanding students at Columbia have already begun to take a lead in supporting each other in the wake of this tragedy. Some useful online resources are provided by:

Moira Curtain: As Lynn and Anne have said, it’s important for social workers to exercise self-care as they are then less likely to have stress burnout, secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma. Knowing the signs, having an active plan and marshalling helpful resources to deal with potential stressors—all are imperative. In addition to the resources cited by Anne, here are a few more that specially address self-care:

Policy steps

Moira Curtain: On a macro level, there should be policies that mandate infrastructure maintenance and funding in all neighborhoods to ensure that these tragedies do not occur—policies that are established through a social justice lens. In the immediate future, we should advocate for city officials to establish systems so people can, for instance, claim insurance, live in temporary housing to suit the size of their families, and have access to mental health services without any time limitations.

Anne Conway: Investigators are working hard to uncover the factors that caused the explosion. Concerns have been raised about possible water main breaks and cast-iron pipes that are over a hundred years old that were used to deliver gas. Some have claimed that gas leaks had been reported multiple times in the area. Investigators are examining call logs to check this and determine when reports started being made. This data will be important and can, in turn, inform the development of policies to prevent this type of tragedy in the future. That said, natural disasters are very difficult to predict. It is just as important to consider effective responsiveness measures so that when disasters do occur, we can reduce damage and suffering and promote the recovery of individuals, families, and communities.

—Compiled and edited by ML Awanohara

Related links:

Image: Aerial view of the East Harlem building explosion by Adnan Islam (CC).