(NECN: Jack Thurston, Bethel, Vt.) - "You just feel empty," Leslie Piela sighed, as she walked through a construction zone in Bethel, Vt.
Piela and her husband, Mike, are still in disbelief that a mountain of dirt and rocks now sits where their home of nine years once did. "Here's our old DVD player," Mike Piela said as he lifted some debris from what used to be his yard.
Last August, during the height of Tropical Storm Irene, the couple's house and almost everything in it was swept down the White River in a matter of minutes. Their sign reading "believe" clung to the wreckage, creating an image that news outlets nationwide broadcast or printed.
"There's no closure yet," Leslie Piela said. "We're still right in the middle of it."
Nearly nine months later, the Pielas say they've experienced signs of post-traumatic stress. "I could feel myself getting very blue," Leslie Piela recalled, describing a day she wished she could be in her now-destroyed garden.
The Pielas said they can suffer from a lack of energy, depression, irritation and even a few flashbacks to the night they fled from the flood waters. "Nervousness," the couple added. "Waking up with anxiety."
But the Pielas are getting help. Crisis counselors from the group Starting Over Strong Vermont visit them weekly in their temporary apartment in Bethel.
"They didn't understand that how they felt was normal," counselor Jennette DiFazio explained. "They couldn't understand why in March they were starting to feel worse than right after the flood."
Mental health workers have found problems often show up seven to nine months after a disaster or other trauma, when initial waves of support have waned but getting back to normal still feels a long way off. Three teams of Starting Over Strong crisis counselors are staying busy in meetings like the one New England Cable News observed Wednesday.
There are no estimates of how many Vermonters have reported post-traumatic stress symptoms after Irene. But Starting Over Strong told NECN it has held more than 1,100 individual counseling sessions with survivors. More than 4,100 have attended group sessions, Starting Over Strong said. There is no charge for SOS services, the group's website tells visitors.
Starting Over Strong is funded with an approximately $750,000, year-long FEMA grant that expires this autumn. Most of the group's contacts with Vermont survivors have been in the central and southern sections of the state. Many of them experienced significant property loss. The group also holds events like yoga sessions, large story-sharing gatherings, and bowling nights to show people they're not alone, and to help them develop coping mechanisms.
Leslie and Mike Piela now exercise to manage their anxiety, and are starting to plan a permanent home.
"We decided from the beginning we weren't going to survive this," Leslie Piela said. "We were going to thrive."
Outside the Pielas' apartment, a different sign saying "believe" now hangs. They said they are grateful their crisis counselors have helped them feel more like themselves again; like they're really "starting over strong."
"Knowing we're on the right track is huge," Leslie Piela said.
For more information on Starting Over Strong Vermont, including listings of upcoming events, visit the group's website.