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Catastrophes like Harvey and Irma trigger 'generosity gene'

Ben Schmitt
| Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017, 4:09 p.m.
Images from St. Martin during Hurricane Irma have started to emerge.
Images from St. Martin during Hurricane Irma have started to emerge.

With ongoing Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts and the threat of devastation from Hurricane Irma, many Americans psychologically feel the need to help.

Dr. Anthony Mannarino calls it the triggering of a “generosity gene.”

“People who aren't affected are thinking, ‘What can I do? How can I be helpful?' ” he said. “They'll find ways to donate money, food, water.”

Mannarino, who is vice chair of Allegheny Health Network's psychiatry department, said he knows of a lot of psychologists who wanted to travel to southeast Texas after Hurricane Harvey to assist emotionally impacted residents.

Television and photographic images of flooding, rescue efforts and frightening satellite views lead to an outpouring of support.

Contributing in some way makes people feel proactive and empowered from afar.

“Americans are motivated to help after catastrophe; that was certainly true after Hurricane Katrina and 9/11,” Mannarino said. “It's no different now.”

The images tugged at Brenda Furiga's heartstrings and led her to donate to a Houston food bank.

“The images on television are devastating,” she said. “It reminds you to be grateful that you are not faced with the same situation. It's heartbreaking.”

Furiga, who lives in McCandless, said she's always struck by interviews with survivors who don't care about destroyed possessions and say, “It's just stuff. We have our lives.”

“It really makes you stop and think if it happened to me, would I be able to say that or think that?” she said.

With Irma now headed toward Florida, she wondered, “Oh jeez, another one? You do get a little fatigue after seeing all the images.”

The American Psychological Association says on its website that watching a hurricane from afar results in various emotions that range from guilt to relief.

“You may feel relief that the disaster did not touch you, or you may feel guilt that you were left untouched when so many were affected,” the website stated. “Both feelings are common.”

The APA also advises that people “take a news break.”

“Watching endless replays of footage from the disasters can make your stress even greater. Although you'll want to keep informed — especially if you have loved ones affected by the disasters — take a break from watching the news.”

Western Pennsylvania residents are already helping in numerous ways.

Last week, the Pittsburgh Foundation donated $50,000 in disaster relief to the Texas coast and asked area residents to join them in contributing.

“We are Pittsburghers; we are Southwestern Pennsylvanians,” Foundation President and CEO Maxwell King said in a statement. “At a time such as this, it is what we are called to do.”

The Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team took in 67 dogs this week from Texas in need of permanent homes.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, bschmitt@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.

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