Weathering the Hurricane: A Guide to Disaster Preparedness and Survival

Weathering the Hurricane: A Guide to Disaster Preparedness and Survival
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Tom Copeland/AP/Shutterstock (9881557c)
A work truck drives on Hwy 24 as the wind from Hurricane Florence blows palm trees in Swansboro N.C
Tropical Weather North Carolina – 13 Sep 2018


Note: Many of the strategies below can apply to also coping with other types of stressful events

As we are again anticipating another devastating hurricane along the east coast (Florence), it is difficult not to worry about our families, friends, pets, and property (not necessarily in that order). On some level it may seem like we are becoming desensitized to hearing about yet another disaster. But even if this is the case, desensitization does not necessarily translate into disaster preparedness. And by preparedness, I do not only mean raiding the shelves of local grocery stores. It is crucial to have a plan for before, during, and after the hurricane. Unlike in the case of unexpected calamities, our knowledge of meteorological anomalies, like tropical storms with exotic names, before they have hit, allows us to ready ourselves practically and psychologically. So here are a few suggestions for how to weather the storm…

Before the storm:

  1. Yes, make sure you have adequate food supplies, but also emergency medication, such as allergy medication, EpiPens, a First Aid kit, a small fire extinguisher. Make sure you also have adequate amounts of your prescription medications. It is even better if you have these items in the home at all times, and if you do, this may be a good time to check if you need to replenish your supplies.
  2. You may want to also get some board games. Electronics and other means of killing time may not work in a power outage. This may also give you and your family an opportunity to spend time together and engage in activities you do not normally do. Not to mention that if you have children, being cooped up inside for a while will require finding creative ways of entertaining them.
  3. Some may feel tempted to drink more in a time when not much other stimulation is available. However, this may impair your abilities to react to an emergency.
  4. If you have children who worry, be sure to make space and encourage them to ask questions about what is about to happen. They will likely have seen the news or heard something at school. If you pretend nothing is happening, they may perceive that you are yourself anxious and this, in turn, may further intensify their worry. Be as honest as possible, but in a developmentally appropriate way, and address their concerns. Children afraid of the dark, for instance, may be scared of losing power, so talk to them about your plan to handle anxiety provoking situations (e.g. candles, solar-powered lights, etc.).
  5. In preparation, create communication circles with your friends, colleagues, and family. Do this in different modes of communication, e.g. phone apps which allow you to create groups (such as WhatsApp or facebook messenger), email forums (you can create a google forum with your chosen group of people, and group text. This way, you can alert multiple people quickly if anyone is experiencing an emergency.
  6. Make time to communicate your worries with people close to you. Often times we feel alone in our anxiety, or we tell ourselves things like “It’s stupid/embarrassing to be anxious,” which are thoughts that we call double-whammy because you are already experiencing a difficult emotion (anxiety), but you are also beating yourself up for feeling this way. That second emotion, embarrassment, prevents you from getting support or even practical advice from others and more effectively cope with the first emotion (anxiety). Chances are, you will find you are not alone in worrying.

After the storm:

But the disaster often doesn’t end with disaster preparedness. We have to be prepared about the aftermath too. Whether you are the survivor, or someone who is in a position to offer support (e.g. you have family, colleagues, friends in a disaster-stricken area), there are a few things to keep in mind. After surviving a disaster, we may feel like it is difficult to ask for help. Avoidance is a hallmark of experiencing a stress reaction, and there are many reasons for it. Also, please be aware that such a reaction in the very aftermath of an adverse event is not abnormal. It is expected and often times resolves with time, without the need for psychological or psychiatric intervention. It is only when it persists that we suggest seeking counseling so that mental wellness can be restored.

In the aftermath of a disaster, it is essential to seek and receive help. This, however, is sometimes made more challenging due to the very essence of being in shock or having a traumatic reaction, which may include some or all of the following:

  1. Being in shock and not knowing what we need
  2. Feeling embarrassed or blaming ourselves
  3. Believing that if we start asking for help or talking about what happened, we may lose control and have a breakdown
  4. Feeling isolated and unable to relate to others who have not experienced a similar trauma/tragedy/disaster
  5. Alternatively, not wanting to burden others who may also be going through the same aftermath of a disaster

If you are the survivor, be aware that isolation will only prolong and/or exacerbate distress. Some things you can do are to reach out to supportive others, engage more in your community (e.g. church, school, library group, mini-communities at your job, support groups for people who have had similar experiences), and seek counseling.

If you are in the position to offer support, below are some DO’s and DON’Ts to keep in mind:

Show interest and not judgment Rush to tell the person that “everything will be ok”
Ask questions, e.g. what is the person’s most urgent problem to resolve Offer coping skills that work for you unless specifically asked to do so
Validate the person’s emotional response, whatever it is Hijack the conversation by sharing your own experiences that may resemble the person’s stressor
Express belief that person will be able to cope and recover, even if it takes time Telling the person “It could be worse”
Offer to talk or spend time, even if you cannot offer practical solutions. Knowing that someone is willing to simply be with them is valuable to someone who is going through an intense emotional reaction. Become distracted or cutting someone off when they are talking about their difficult emotions
Ask if at that moment the person would like emotional support or brainstorming practical solutions. This is a very important question, as we often jump to offering “fixes” when people need someone to just listen to their story. Making comments like: “If you had/hadn’t done X, this wouldn’t have happened.” Even if some of the aftermath is due to the person’s own doing/negligence/confusion, they are likely already beating themselves up worse than you can, and this only slows down recovery.

Author: Valentina Stoycheva

Dr. Stoycheva is the Co-Founder and Director of STEPS: Stress & Trauma Evaluation and Psychological Services, Long Island, NY ( STEPS is a group practice staffed with expert and dedicated clinicians, who strive to provide the highest quality trauma-informed and evidence-based treatment for all affected by stressful events and traumatic experiences. STEPS offers individual, as well as group and family therapy for adults and children of all ages who have been exposed to traumatic events, or love someone who is struggling to recover from a traumatic event.
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