Keeper of stories
When disaster strikes, Tim Hanks is on the front line
(Published August 6, 2006, 1:29 p.m.)
By Donna Lenz Wright/The Week
The first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is just under three weeks
away, and this season's waters are already beginning to swirl.
If the region gets hit hard again, what lessons have we learned?
Tim Hanks, a Walworth County resident, was on the front lines last
year as a member of the federal government's National Disaster Medical
"We're one of the only things that FEMA (Federal Emergency Management
Agency) did right during Katrina," Tim Hanks says with conviction. "It
wasn't our job to deal with crowd control or relocation, but you didn't
hear about people not getting medical treatment because we were there,
we were treating people."
Hanks works on the front lines of disasters as one of 58 mental health
clinicians with the NDMS. He's both a psychotherapist and chaplain.
In times of peace, Hanks commutes to Chicago where he works at Challenger,
Gray and Christmas, the largest global outplacement firm in the world.
When disaster strikes, he drops everything and heads straight into
the eye of danger.
Overseen by Homeland Security and FEMA, NDMS is essentially on its
own in disaster situations once it is deployed, he says.
The four major areas of the NDMS are: Urban Search and Rescue Teams
(U-S&R), Disaster Medical Assistance Teams (D-MAT), Veterinary Medical
Assistance Teams (V-MAT) and Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Teams
Hanks' mental health clinician teams work among all four areas treating
victims of disasters and NDMS workers.
His first assignment was the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma
City in 1995. He's also been deployed for several airline crashes, the
last eight hurricanes, including Katrina, and to Ground Zero in New
York City after September 11, 2001.
Stories from Katrina
"Contrary to what you all heard on the news, we had 38 teams pre-inserted
prior to the hurricane hitting," Hanks said. "Within the first week,
just one of the D-MAT sites had treated 1,400 people.
One D-MORT base of 135 workers processed 22 semi-trucks of victims,
he said. And simultaneously at one site in tents, D-MATs treated a man
with a pole through his head, a man suffering from a heart attack and
stroke and a woman having a breech delivery.
Wherever he goes, Hanks hands out laminated pocket-sized information
brochures listing common symptoms, stages and coping mechanisms of mental
"(The brochures) are to first of all help people remember what I say-because
nobody can remember all of that stuff-and to reassure people that just
because they're suffering from psychological symptoms, it doesn't mean
they're crazy or losing it. It's just going to happen.
"This way they'll know what to do to get some control back when it
In addition to his work with the NDMS, he served as a liaison between
the First Baptist Church of Gulf Port, La., which was extremely damaged
by the hurricane, and his home church, Calvary Community Church in Williams
"It's one person making a difference," he said. "I stopped in (to the
church) by just following a feeling and made a big difference. It's
things like that that detract you from some of the more horrible things
I did see."
During this time, and all of Hanks' assignments, he finds what he calls
the ministry of presence to be what people need most of all.
"It's to just be with those people," he says. "It's not necessarily
saying anything or doing anything. It's just sitting with them and giving
them an opportunity to safely grieve or do what they need to do for
People tend to want to relive a trauma over and over, and this is a
major mistake, Hanks says.
"No. No. No," he insists strongly. "No should'ves, would'ves or could'ves-ever.
It never does any good."
Most times during those long spells of silence Hanks finds the ministry
of presence is exactly what that person needs to bring out what they
need to talk about.
"People tend to find something to say," he said. "That's why I call
myself the keeper of the stories."
Stories from September 11
After September 11, Hanks spent nearly three months in New York City,
with two one-week breaks.
When Hanks isn't directly counseling people, he's there, shoulder to
shoulder, working alongside everyone else. If it's caring for the wounded,
the deceased or digging dirt and rocks, he's there.
"I'm not this psych guy just standing there," he says, curling his
index and middle fingers as he says the words psych guy. "Sometimes
people don't know who I am for days."
During a bus ride from his hotel to Ground Zero, Hanks became the keeper
of the stories once again for the man driving the bus.
"I was driving the bus that day," the bus driver began. "I had a bus
full of people right in front of the building when the plane hit. I
heard the noise and stopped the bus. Everybody got out and we're all
standing there watching the thing for 20 or 30 minutes. It finally dawned
on me that I'd better get the bus out of here because this is going
to get ugly pretty quick.
"That's when it started."
Then he stopped talking.
"I'm thinking, 'OK, what? The other building? What?'" Hanks said.
"Then he proceeds to start making this guttural noise. He was trying
to mimic the sound of bodies hitting pavement."
Three hours later over coffee, Hanks and the man began the journey
through healing-talked out the initial issues and made a follow-up plan.
Another day, a New York City firefighter approached Hanks carrying
four fingers as if they were the most precious things he had ever touched.
"Look what I found. What do I do with these?" he asked Hanks.
"You could tell he was freaking out."
Hanks led him to the forensic identification process area and after
leaving the fingers there, they went for coffee.
"Then he lost it. He kept saying, 'This is probably one of the guys
I knew from Truck such and such.'"
Hanks spent the next few hours assuring the firefighter of the difference
he made that day and that a family will have closure and knowledge of
what happened to their loved one.
"He went away knowing he made a difference that day."
Hanks got the fingers' medical identification number and the firefighter
tracked it to the family. They're now friends.
Then Hanks follows the story with his own humble assessment of what
"When you feel you have your own giftedness, abilities and your ducks
in a row, you can go into these kinds of disasters and actually do quite
a bit for others-as long as you also pace yourself and don't get overwhelmed."
Seeing the good through the very bad
It's times like these that challenge people's faith. Some lose faith
while others gain it.
Hanks is one of the latter group.
"My appreciation and faith in my Creator is much stronger because of
this job," he said. "I see it as a privilege and a real blessing to
be able to provide that sense of helping-to carry their burden for a
As much as it's given him a stronger faith in God, it's given him a
stronger faith in people.
"It's given me some very interesting glimpses of mankind at their best,"
he said. "There's some really cool things happening here in the U.S.
when people get together for a common purpose. It has nothing to do
with race or politics or who has more than the next guy-it's let's all
get out there and do the job.
"It's a privilege to be able to get out there and see this stuff firsthand.
I love what I do and I'm thankful for the opportunity to continue to
make some small differences."