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Disaster expertise now personal for USF researcher

TAMPA — Years of research on the psychological effects of natural disasters became personal for Chilean native Carlos Zalaquett on Saturday.

Zalaquett, coordinator of the University of South Florida's clinical mental health counseling program, has counseled people after disasters and written extensively about helping survivors.

Early Saturday morning he was awakened by a phone call to his Tampa home. An 8.8-magnitude earthquake had rocked Chile, where his extended family lives. He immediately started calling relatives.

Hundreds died in the quake, which hit early Saturday. Zalaquett said his relatives seem to be okay, but he knows the earthquake will take a much larger toll in the form of mental trauma.

"Disasters can transform your life in very different ways," he said. "After an earthquake, your sense of security, your sense of stability is affected."

Zalaquett, who moved to the United States in 1997, has survived two major quakes in Chile and conducted research on helping survivors of natural disasters.

He said that after Chileans' basic needs of food, water, shelter and medical attention are met, they'll need counseling. Traumatic events can cause anxiety, which, if untreated, could result in post-traumatic stress disorder.

He said people sometimes suffer flashbacks, increased stress, hyper vigilance and nightmares.

Zalaquett hopes his research can help survivors of quakes in both Chile and Haiti. As an executive secretary for the Interamerican Society of Psychology, he said the group already is working to help Chileans.

"We've been e-mailing to discuss how we can provide psychological assistance, in addition to how we can provide any material assistance," he said.

About a year ago, after a major earthquake hit Peru, Zalaquett assembled a PowerPoint presentation with information about aiding survivors of natural disasters.

He sent a copy to the Chilean ambassador in Haiti after January's earthquake, and he is in the process of getting it to Chilean counselors.

"It's a traumatic situation for all of us," he said.

Times staff writer Rick Danielson contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Disaster expertise now personal for USF researcher 02/27/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 28, 2010 8:10am]

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