Keeping love alive after disaster strikes
After natural disasters, the stress of recovery can test the bonds of the strongest relationship. Here’s how one couple prevailed in the aftermath of a storm, and seven tips for recovering from a disaster.
Months after Hurricane Michael splintered their Florida Panhandle home, Eric and Carmen Billot were still reeling as they stayed with family members while recovering. One evening, they briefly escaped from the stress, went out to dinner, and took a walk on the beach.
There, they found romance again.
“We took the time to really listen and talk to each other about how we felt,” said Eric Billot, 42, now manager of a Wells Fargo branch in Panama City Beach, Florida. “We had the quiet time that we needed to enjoy each other again. Things were different every day after that.”
The Billots experienced firsthand the strain many couples feel as they try to rebuild after hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and other disasters. Dealing with staggering losses, mounting costs, and growing tensions can test even the strongest bond.
After natural disasters, divorce rates often spike as conflict and stress can tear partners apart, wrote psychologist George S. Everly Jr., an author and professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, in a commentary.
“They tend to bring out the best in people and the worst,” he said. “It is certainly not too great of a leap to understand that these adverse life events can have a profound effect upon relationships.”
For the Billots, the aftermath of Hurricane Michael brought out the best in their family members, who rallied to support them during the crisis. The couple stayed temporarily with relatives in the nearby town of Chipley, Florida, about 50 miles north of their home in Panama City. Despite their own chaos, they pitched in to help others devastated by the storm and volunteered with nonprofits to distribute food and clothing.
“We saw people who were a lot worse off than we were, people who had lost everything,” Carmen Billot said. “So that puts everything in perspective for you. Your way of looking at life completely changes. And we still feel it in the way we live today, being thankful and appreciating what we have.”
The couple also credited Wells Fargo for supporting them along the way, receiving help from team member volunteers and the Wells Fargo Mobile Response Unit, which helped many storm victims throughout the community. The Billots also received financial help from the company’s internal WE Care Fund.
“In the early days after the storm, if we had no money for gas, they would foot the bill. If we didn’t have food, batteries, flashlights, or toiletries, they’d be there to provide it. They really stepped up,” Carmen Billot said.
In many ways, the couple’s journey has been a roadmap for those recovering from disaster while still taking care of their physical, emotional, and financial health, said Eduardo Martinez, head of disaster response and readiness for Wells Fargo. The company provides guidance and support through its mobile response efforts during times of crisis.
“In any disaster, people must take care of first things first — the safety of their family,” he said. “Things happen too swiftly in the immediate aftermath to also think about financial details like paying your mortgage and other bills. That’s why being prepared is extremely important, and why planning before a disaster is key to alleviating some of the burdens associated with recovery.”
Meanwhile, the Billots barely missed a beat on the job, according to Cynthia Zubia, a regional banking district manager for Wells Fargo. Carmen, a teller at the time, was back at work within days after Michael hit. (She later took a job as a project manager for a residential contractor.) Eric continued to drive hours daily “to be present for his team and customers” at Destin’s Sandestin branch where he was manager at the time. (He was later promoted to manage a Panama City Beach branch.)
“They lost their home due to the impact of Michael, but showed their true commitment to our customers and team members, returning to work despite their own hardship,” Zubia said. “They’re also extremely passionate about volunteering, supporting the development of the communities we live in, and making a positive impact in many different ways.”
Still, as time went on, the couple began to feel the cumulative stress on their relationship from rebuilding their home, living in someone else’s household, working full time, caring for Eric’s mother (whose home was also destroyed), and helping their blended family, including Eric’s teen daughter and Carmen’s grown daughter and three grown sons.
“We started to feel the pressure,” Eric Billot said. “My wife and I just didn’t have time to be alone with each other. And it was taking a toll on our relationship.”
After that fateful dinner and beach walk, however, they knew what they had to do. The couple and their daughter left their relative’s home in Chipley after finding an affordable hotel room in Panama City Beach, aided by their insurance that covered post-disaster lodging.
“It wasn’t ideal,” Eric Billot said. “But it was somewhere we could flourish as a family. We could be ourselves.”
That decision helped the Billots survive what Everly calls the “disillusionment phase” of disaster recovery, where reality sets in about how difficult the recovery will be. It follows the “heroic phase,” or the early post-disaster weeks, in which couples rally together in hopes that the job will go smoothly and quickly.
Whatever stage of recovery they’re in, couples must effectively communicate with each other, said marriage therapist Staci Lee Schnell.
“It is important for couples to manage all of the stress of the events without projecting their anger and sadness onto one another,” she said. “Leaning on and drawing from each other’s strengths is key. Effective communication, including active listening, are essential skills to make sure couples are turning toward one another, rather than away, in times of crises.”
The Billots did turn to each other amid adversity, sharing responsibilities and dividing the workload of recovery: Carmen handled talks with their insurer and the contractor while taking care of the children, her mother-in-law, and the household needs. Eric managed their finances and cleanup, while returning to work full time.
In May 2019, the Billot family returned to their rebuilt home, seven months after Hurricane Michael had demolished it. At first, only a few rooms were ready. They slept on an air mattress and could only use one bathroom. Gradually, however, room by room, the full house was once again theirs.
“Even before we got back into our house, we realized after all we’d been through, we could survive anything as long as we were together,” Carmen Billot said. “When everything around you seems so gloomy and devastating, you have to find the positive. And we found the positive with each other.”