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 System (NDMS).

"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 (D-MORT).

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 trauma.

"(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 gets them."

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 Bay.

"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 themselves."

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 he does.

"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 little while."

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."

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