Natural Disaster Recovery GuideBy Dwight Bain
Storms can be deadly. That's why emergency weather management facilities send out such serious warnings ahead of time to protect the lives of our children, homes and communities. We know to stay inside during severe weather and to unplug our televisions and computers because we know that in bad weather bad things can happen. We know to prepare ahead of time by keeping a watchful eye on tracking the storm and stocking up on the resources needed to get through it safely, like flashlight batteries, bottled water, first aid kits and other essential survival supplies. However, what we usually don't know is how to deal with the devastating emotions that come after a terrible storm hits. Emotions like stress, anger, worry, depression, anxiety and panic are common in our busy world but can build up to dangerous levels after a critical incident, which often can lead to disastrous results.
Natural disasters can destroy entire communities in just a few moments, while the recovery process to rebuild from a major critical incident may take weeks or months to sort through. The more you know about how to survive after the storm, the faster you can take positive action to get your personal and professional life back on track. Since natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, fires and floods are among the biggest and most destructive forces that impact people living in the United States; what can you do right now to cope with the psychological impact of a major storm before or after it makes landfall?
The most important thing to focus on is this: "DON'T MAKE A BAD SITUATION WORSE!"
Keep this single thought in mind as you begin to sort through the process of stabilizing yourself and those you care about who have been impacted by the storm. During the storm the goal is to be safe while surviving whatever nature throws your way; blistering heat, the ground quaking under your feet or your house being gale force winds and rain. After the disaster is over and the storm passes, the goal is to quickly rebuild the normal life routines that you had in your personal and professional life before the storm hit. If you get focused on rebuilding, you will be able to spend your energy in positive ways instead of being in a mental fog of confusion, mingled with panic or regret.
Dealing directly with your emotions will reduce the tension and stress on you, which allows you to have more energy to deal with a difficult situation. However, if you stuff your fears and frustrations in a major disaster, your emotions can quickly blow up without warning. Exploding in rage on your children, your marriage partner or a volunteer at a water station will only make a difficult situation worse. It's not their fault, and it's not yours. Natural disasters are a terrible situation full of loss and difficulty for everyone. By taking action now you can move beyond feeling overwhelmed by intense stress, anger or confusion. As you follow the insight from this recovery guide, you will be taking positive steps to rebuild with the focused energy of an even stronger life for you and your family after the storm.
To best survive the storm, you need a strong combination of three key elements
- healthy coping skills
- healthy supports and a
- healthy perspective
of how to rebuild after a natural disaster. While things will never be the same as they were before the storm; the following guidelines will give you the key elements needed to get past the overwhelming stress and to find even greater strength on the other side.
- What are the dangerous warning signs of "Storm Stress Syndrome"?
Stress from the storm affects everyone however; it becomes dangerous to our health if it goes on for an extended period of time. Storm Stress can affect adults, children, the elderly and even pets, so it is important to be alert to watch for the danger signs of the psychological condition called, 'Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder', (commonly referred to as PTSD), in yourself, your family members and coworkers. In natural disasters like hurricanes or tornadoes, I refer to the rapid build up of these symptoms as "Storm Stress Syndrome". These symptoms include any dramatic change in emotions, behavior, thought patterns or physical symptoms over the next few days, weeks or even months. Since natural disasters are a terribly stressful time for everyone, both during and after the storm and often remain stressful for some time to come, there are a number of factors to be aware of to keep yourself and those who you care about safe.
Storm Stress Warning Signs-
These signs are indicators that the intense stress from the critical incident is beginning to overwhelm the individual. The longer the stress symptoms occur-the greater the severity of the traumatic event on the individual. This does not imply craziness or personal weakness; rather, it simply indicates that the stress levels from the storm were too powerful for the person to manage and their body is reacting to the abnormal situation of having survived a major trauma.
It's normal to feel completely overwhelmed by a natural disaster like a hurricane; however there are danger signs to watch for in yourself or others that may indicate psychological trauma. Adults or children who display any of the following stress symptoms may need additional help dealing with the events of this crisis. It is strongly recommended that you seek the appropriate medical or psychological assistance if you see a lot of of the physical, emotional, cognitive or behavioral symptoms listed below in you, your coworkers, or someone in your family or home, especially if these symptoms weren't present before the storm.
Chills, thirst, fatigue, nausea, fainting, vomiting, dizziness, weakness, chest pain, headaches, elevated blood pressure, rapid heart rate, muscle tremors, difficulty breathing, shock symptoms, and so on.
Fear, guilt, grief, panic, denial, anxiety, irritability, depression, apprehension, emotional shock, and feeling overwhelmed, loss of emotional control, and so on.
Confusion, nightmares, uncertainty, hyper-vigilance, suspiciousness, intrusive images, poor problem solving, poor abstract thinking, poor attention/memory and concentration, disorientation of time, places or people, difficulty identifying objects or people, heightened or lowered alertness, and so on.
Withdrawal, antisocial acts, inability to rest, intensified pacing, erratic movements, changes in social activity, changes in speech patterns, loss of or increase of appetite, increased alcohol consumption, and so on.
If you are in doubt about these symptoms in your life, or someone you care about, it is wise to seek the care of a physician or certified mental health professional. Better to actively deal with the stressful emotions directly to help yourself and your loved ones to immediately cope with this crisis because these emotions tend to worsen and get more intense if left untreated. Remember that there are many experienced professionals who can help you recover during a time of crisis. You do not have to go through this alone.
Take action now to prevent stress after the storm from continuing to overwhelm you or the people you care about. Call a trusted friend to talk through it, reach out to clergy, or call your family doctor or counselor. If you don't know someone to call about these emotional issues, you can reach out for assistance by calling telephone hotlines which are offered at no cost to you. These numbers are often posted by local media, hospitals, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army or FEMA. If you, or someone you care about are feeling overwhelmed by stress, anxiety, guilt or grief it's important to make the call for assistance now to learn how to get past the pressure to begin to feel 'okay' again.
- How can I help my family get back to "normal" after a major disaster?
Hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, floods and earthquakes are often the most destructive events that a person can experience in a lifetime. These types of storms are also among the most expensive disasters to recover from financially because of being out of work or not having enough insurance coverage to replace what the storm destroyed. It may take months to perhaps even a year for everyone to feel that things are back to "normal." The actual psychological impact of the storm will vary widely between people based on factors like- age, their previous experiences with storm recovery and most significantly how much stress they already had in their life before the storm. The more stress someone had in their life prior to the storms, the longer it takes to recover, and with the additional stress of daily life coupled with the rise in gasoline prices the stress levels have dramatically increased on everyone affected by these storms.
Here are some immediate ways to bring order and calmness back into your life after the chaos and confusion that follows a natural disaster like these hurricanes.
1) Reconnect in relationships -
You can't get through a crisis alone. Since we all were impacted differently, it is vitally important to talk about the stress and pressures you have experienced with the people closest to you. Reach out to friends and family as soon as possible, and call people you haven't heard from in a while. Just checking in to see if they are okay will only take a few minutes, but it will empower and help both of you. Simply talk about what each of you experienced through the disaster and how you got through the storm. Tremendous connection can occur through crisis, so this is an especially good time to reach out to friends or family who may have drifted away from your closest circle of relationships. Take action now to reach out to people with words of encouragement and support, but don't wait for someone else to call you-their phone may not work! Go find them and then reconnect the relationship while helping each other rebuild.
2) Rebuild your routines-
This is one of the most important factors to quickly get life back on track because we all draw strength and security from a structured daily routine. Bed time, dinner time, getting up to go to school, or work, or church or the gym to work out. To regain strength quickly identify what your normal routines were before the storm-and then get back to them as soon as possible. Even if you are staying in a hotel, shelter or with family members for a while, stick with the rituals that you have typically followed that make up your daily lifestyle. This way you will feel the comfort of your stable and predictable routines, regardless of the stress of the many changes happening around you.
3) Reach out for faith-
In times of crisis everyone believes in the power of prayer and the importance of their faith. There is tremendous strength in knowing what you believe and living in harmony with those beliefs and values. Plugging back into your faith after the storm will allow you to release anxiety over the things that you know are too big for you, because you can trust God to handle them. Dedicate a few minutes or perhaps even an hour per day to quiet mediation and reflection on what matters most if you want to continue to grow strong in spite of the storm. This is especially important when you or your children may feel lost, alone or afraid. God cares and taking time to pray and release those burdens will help you make it through the rest of your day. Many churches and houses of faith have disaster and recovery teams, support services and even financial assistance available to help their members cope with the crisis. Helping others in need is one of the greatest ways people of faith model what they believe, so avoid the tendency of being "too nice" to ask for help if you need it. Having a committed personal faith combined with the connection of a local house of worship will give you a tremendous sense of community to get through this storm as well as the ones to come.
4) Retell your story-
Young and old alike will benefit from hearing about how other people survived what will likely be the worst natural disaster they will ever experience. There is tremendous power in telling your story; healing power for you and helpful power for others who will gain insight and strength by hearing how creative people can become through the crisis. As you speak up about what happened, it will make it easier for other family members or coworkers to talk about their feelings of loss as well. Things will never be the same as before, but life will go on and we can rebuild and get through it better together. Telling your story now will give you additional strength as well as connect you to the neighbors and friends as they share their story with you.
- How does a critical incident like this affect kids?
It depends on the age of the child. The younger the child, the more they look to their parents for emotional security and strength. If a Mom or Dad are "shell-shocked" or "numb" and not able to manage their own emotions or responsibilities; the child will feel that pressure and become very confused and further stressed. Remember, it's normal to be overwhelmed by a major disaster. This is why it's so important to take care of yourself in order to take care of your children and those your care about through the long period of recovery and rebuilding after the storm.
Think about the advice given on commercial airliners to parents traveling with small children. "Should there be an unexpected cabin de-pressurization; oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling. Place the mask over your nose and mouth like this and then place the mask over the mouth and nose of those around you needing assistance." Take care of your own emotional needs first, and then you will be in a stronger position to help those around you. If you feel overwhelmed in giving your children or others who may depend on you for support, please ask for help. It's okay to be tired, worn out and overly stressed. That's normal after a natural disaster. However, it's not okay to ignore caring for the needs of those counting on you like children, the elderly or pets. Sometimes a parent may need to make adjustments at work or change their own schedules for a while by delegating some tasks in order to have time and energy to help their children avoid feeling more pressure from the difficult experience that surviving a major disaster brings. If you feel that your caregiver 'tank' is empty, let someone else help you for a while until you get your strength back. That's best for you and for those that you care about.
When you can focus and dedicate attention to understanding the needs of young children, notice what they are saying, drawing or doing to determine if they are still feeling overly stressed from the storm. School age kids need to talk, draw pictures or take positive action, (like having a lemonade stand to raise money for kids just like them who are now storm victims because their homes were destroyed), so if you give them something to do to help, they can take positive action and sort through their emotions immediately. High school age kids may try to act "cool" about everything, but often are more scared about the changes, losses and confusion than any other group. They are older and may need to experience a bit more "reality" at times to loosen up their ability to talk about what is happening around them. If they are willing to talk to their siblings, other family members, clergy or counselors it often doesn't take very long before they can grow strong enough to deal with their emotions and get back to feeling like themselves again.
The greatest danger sign to be alert and aware of is by noticing any dramatic changes in behavior. If a child was always happy go lucky before the storm and now sits all day to watch video footage of the world's disasters on the news or weather channels- then you may want to figure out why they made such a dramatic shift in personality. Watch for other major changes in sleep patterns, school patterns, school performance, peer relations and so on. If you see major changes that concern you, it's time to seek professional attention for the child with their pediatrician or with a child behavioral specialist.
- What are some ways to help our kids talk about storm stress?
You can reach out to children in many ways to help them deal with this stressful time of rebuilding after the storm. Talking, writing, drawing, even making up a song about the experience with the disaster will make the time pass more quickly, and may even lighten someone else's load of emotional pain and difficulty while helping you back through the process. Some families even play board games like the "worst case scenario," (which is based on actual survival information from a book by the same name). Many of the issues discussed in the game aren't likely to happen to the majority of people on the planet, (such as how to survive a shark attack), however, talking about any crisis event in life can help kids learn the basics of moving from the panic of basic survival to building strengths through problem solving.
- What can people expect in the weeks ahead?
"Hurry up and wait," will be the motto that a lot of people will think about in the days ahead. This is because the daily life activities like filling up a gas tank, taking a warm shower, or driving through a busy intersection with working traffic lights, have been dramatically disrupted. Life is usually out of balance for weeks or sometimes even months after a major disaster, and while no one likes it, we all have to get through it.
There may be long lines for many of the basic products or services necessary to survive or care for our loved ones; so prepare now for the fact that may be difficult at times. Major storms can kill hundreds of people, shattered billboards, rip traffic lights from their poles, splintered trees, shred awnings or screen rooms, rip apart electric-cable-phone-Internet transmission lines, snap off traffic signs, seriously damaged thousands of homes and cause millions to sometimes even billions of dollars in damage where they hit, (like Hurricane Katrina did to the Gulf coast a few years ago). The more people and communities that are seriously affected the longer it takes for some things to even be evaluated for repair and significantly longer than that for them to be replaced. It is wise to mentally prepare for the fact that the damage from a major storm could take weeks to clean up and months to perhaps even a year to rebuild from.
Know that this will be hard on everyone involved but we can get through it with a lot less stress if we work together. Here's a formula to help victims recover from this type of crisis event faster. It spells out the word "P.A.T." which stands for
Things are going to take a lot longer than normal. Focus on the reality of why things are disorganized or confusing after the storm, instead of getting angry at everything that doesn't go your way. The more you let your anger build, the more likely you will dump it on the people you love. That is irresponsible and wrong, so don't do it! Deal directly with the pressure of this recovery time by building a deeper understanding of the situation and what you can actually do about it, instead of feeling angry and helpless about what you can't do anything about right now during this time of disaster recovery. Being moody and continually irritated will not make things better for anyone, but it can make a bad situation worse for everyone involved. Why add more stress to an already over-stressed situation?
In a crisis situation you can't afford to waste even a drop of valuable resources like water or gasoline-and you should be equally cautious about wasting emotional energy by worrying about things you can't change. It's time to go with the flow of difficult situations, instead of trying to fight against it. You can't control the fact that this difficult situation has happened, and if you try it hyper-control something as big as a natural disaster it will only lead to greater levels of anxiety and stress for you. Better to keep focused on positive things like counting your blessings instead of counting your problems. Anxiety, stress, worry and chronic sleep loss can take a bad situation like this one and turn it into an abusive, or out of control one in a matter of days. Protect your attitude and you will significantly protect your ability to deal with the challenges that lie ahead.
This one is hard because people tend to feel angry and resentful in the days and weeks after a critical incident. However, it is essential to know that the construction and recovery crews responsible to take action to repair the daily life activities we tend to take for granted, (like electricity, water, gas, phone and cable services), are already working 24/7 shifts to accomplish that important goal of rebuilding basic services that were disrupted by the disaster.
This includes staff from the power company, phone company, tree services, cell phone providers, cable television workers, Internet providers, insurance adjusters, FEMA workers, the department of transportation workers replacing signs and traffic lights, fire fighters, police officers, doctors, nurses, school board officials, grocery store workers, gas station attendants, yard debris collectors and on and on. Trust that everyone is doing the best that they can to get things back on track. Emergency repair crews often work double time to get our homes, schools and businesses back on track-count on it. Even better, stop and thank them with your kids if you have a chance. A kind word of "thanks" goes a long way to reduce the stress and frustration that these professionals feel in rebuilding and maintaining essential services in our community.
- Why do some people seem to become bitter or hateful after a crisis like this one, instead of just being grateful to be alive?
A major disaster "dumps out" whatever is inside of a person, so you will see the best and the worst of behavior happening in the days ahead. A critical incident or natural disaster that overwhelms an entire community creates an equal sized emotional reaction in people, so be prepared for some unusual reactions in yourself and the people around you. Sometimes people who were the most hurting before the storm will act wonderful and kind on the other side of recovering from this type of traumatic event. It's like they find a hidden strength in a crisis and reach out to others in a new way. Others just go numb and will seem to act like robots. Some people will get loud and others will become unusually quiet. There are many reasons for the wide range of emotional response; with a common factor being how many difficult and traumatic experiences they may have already witnessed in their lives. Hopefully, some people may have already sorted through these deep hurts and strong emotions before a killer storm hits. If so, they may have a deeper understanding of the need for compassion to others in a crisis. They understand about the storms in life and react with kindness, sometimes it may even seem to come automatically for them to reach out with positive emotions instead of being critical.
Other people can get completely cutting, hateful and mean in everything that they say and do, even if they weren't that way before the storm. They may even try to chase you off with a broom if you try to help them clean up the broken limbs in their yard! Don't panic, they probably aren't having a breakdown, rather it's likely a behavior some people call being 'hardhearted.' This comes from year's worth of unresolved past hurts being piled up and never addressed or resolved. Try not to take it personally if the criticism comes your way. Remember the rule that "hurt people- hurt people" and then take their negative comments with a 'grain of salt' while still attempting to maintain integrity in caring for others who may be able to receive the offer of a helping hand to get through this difficult time.
- What is survivor guilt and how does it negatively impact people?
Thousands of people who didn't lose power, have their homes damaged or lose basic services often feel uncomfortable with being blessed instead of being grateful for their blessings. Remember to manage your affairs at home and then at work in a responsible way, and to pace yourself through the process. Doing too much/too soon can exhaust you and limit your ability to live out your priorities in your immediate family. Helping others at the expense of protecting and helping your own family seems right after a disaster, but it is wrong because it misplaces the important priority of caring for those closest to you first, (there are emergency exceptions to that rule at times). Best is to pace yourself in the race to recover and rebuild. Hurricane or flood seasons come to an end, but if you over do-things you may end up hurting yourself and make your own future a lot worse. If your home is okay and you can get to work, be the happiest person in your neighborhood and if you only suffered minor storm damage don't allow the inconveniences of daily life, like having to do without hot water or cable television for a while, get you down.
- What should people consider when first returning to their homes after being evacuated before the storm?
You need to mentally prepare for the loss by remembering that things in this life can be damaged by wind, water, fire and falling trees. Our lives and the lives of those that we love are much more valuable than anything in our homes. Whatever the destruction looks like now, remember that it can and eventually will be repaired in time. Keep repeating to yourself phrases like, "It's just stuff anyway," or "the more things you have, the more things have you," or even "our family is safe-and that's all that matters since the rest is just a house that can be replaced." Changing your mind about things will allow you to control your most powerful asset, your own internal drives, personal beliefs and choices, which is the emotional "grid": that all other emotions go through. Change that, and you will be able to make even more positive changes in your daily life.
- What final thought can you give to encourage us through this recovery process?
Stress can lead you to a greater level of success if you allow it; which is the primary focus you need to grow through a difficult situation like this one. You will make it through the crisis and you will survive if you take action to connect to your supports, use positive coping skills and develop the mindset of looking for strength beyond the storm. The biggest part of this process is to reach out and link arms with others who were impacted by this storm just like you were. Supporting others gives you a significantly greater level of strength than if you ever tried to stand alone through the crisis. Finding strength in storms by linking arms with others is what the massive Redwood trees in California do to withstand incredible pressure.
Redwoods are massive trees...
many are over 300 feet high, and yet only have root systems that go 4-5 feet deep. Why don't they fall over in a gentle breeze? Simple. The mighty Redwoods never grow alone. They link their roots together and withstand ten times the stress and pressure because they are not alone in the storm. They need each other to stand strong and so do we. A major crisis gives us a chance to stand strong together, just like the Redwoods do. This is our time to get focused, build healthy coping skills into our daily life and be surrounded by strong people who have the heart and resources to stand firm by living out what they believe. And it's time for you to stand alongside them as we all come together to rebuild our community after the storm.
No matter what the size of crisis event, you can find strength after the storm because moving beyond the stress is the beginning of finding greater success. Following the action steps in this resource guide will allow you to begin building strength back into your personal and professional life in spite of the storms. As you grow stronger you can tell others, which will encourage them to press on as they rebuild their lives, right next to yours. Stronger people create stronger communities and that is the journey you have already begun. I encourage you to stay with it as you build an even stronger life after the storm.
About Dwight Bain
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Dwight Bain is a Nationally Certified Counselor, Certified Life Coach and Certified Family Law Mediator in practice since 1984 with a primary focus on solving crisis events and managing major change. Critical Incident Stress Management expert with the Orange County Sheriffs Office, founder of StormStress.com and trainer for over 1,500 business groups on the topic of making strategic change to overcome major stress- both personally & professionally. He is a professional member of the National Speakers Association and partners with corporations and organizations to make a positive difference in our culture. Access more complimentary counseling and coaching resources designed to save you time by strategically solving problems at http://www.LifeWorksGroup.org
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