Emotional Health

Harvey and Beyond: Coping with Disaster

The country is now recovering from Hurricane Harvey, which some have called “a thousand-year flood event” in terms of the scope of its destruction. Meanwhile, the coast of Florida is now bracing for the arrival of Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm that is “considered the most powerful Atlantic storm ever recorded,” according to The New York Times. Climate-change scientists have predicted that extreme weather events are likely to be more frequent in the future—and there’s no denying that the future is here.

No matter where you live, the potential for catastrophic events is always present. The good news is that human beings are wired to respond to setbacks, and often show remarkable resilience. Studies have shown that a few years after a traumatic event, even one as devastating as becoming a paraplegic, most people will return to their previous level of happiness.

What can we do, when faced with trauma, to increase our chances of bouncing back? The most important thing people need is support. In whatever form, whether it is community aid, family help, or friends standing by you, those who feel they are not alone fare better. That means asking for and seeking help, early and often. One of the things that made the impact of Katrina so devastating was the residents’ sense that they had been abandoned by the rest of the country and their pleas for aid were going unheeded.

We have learned from that disaster, and citizens of Houston and its surroundings are feeling more supported by each other and the outside world this time around. There have been stories of epic heroism and touching generosity, like the one about the mattress-store owner who immediately opened his doors as a shelter where all were welcome.  Congress is going to come through with aid money, and even some Texas lawmakers who opposed relief for Hurricane Sandy victims are on board now.

Another strategy that helps is to establish a measure of control. This can be difficult when chaos is surrounding you and you have lost everything. A colleague wrote in an email, “The storm/hurricane lasted days and the prolonged anxiety of feeling completely powerless and not knowing if we were safe was very hard.” But even the smallest acts to actively address the crisis, such as giving blood, can help give you a sense that you are “doing something.”

Digging out can take a long time, and progress will be slow. A third element that can help is trying to keep as much as possible to things that are familiar. Though some people may opt to move away or stay with friends in a different neighborhood, usually people fare better if their surroundings are as familiar as possible. While that may be difficult when you’ve lost your home and all your possessions, if you have a choice. the more you can stay put in your normal routines, the better.

Jean Rhodes, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts,

“has concluded that, early on, people need familiar systems of support, so she has recommended moving people to shelters near their neighborhoods so there is a sense of community. She is also an advocate for allowing people to keep their pets in the shelters, because of the tremendous comfort they provide.”

This can mean, besides choosing to get help with a local community center, also trying to keep the kids in the same school, and staying in touch with your day-to-day friends and colleagues.

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