This week, South Florida has been keeping a watchful eye on Hurricane Dorian. Many of us who have lived through a hurricane know that they can carve a path of catastrophic destruction. They can leave behind not only physical damage, but psychological scars.
This is partially a product of how we code such memories in our brains. Traumatic memories are literally etched into the brain and recalled with emotion-evoking intensity.
Since Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida in 1992, we better understand the psychological footprint of these meteorological disasters. Simply distilled, more people are affected psychologically than are injured physically.
When a hurricane strikes, persons in harm’s way experience a wide range of psychological, behavioral, physical and emotional reactions. Indeed, psychological distress is pervasive, palpable, and nearly universal among those who are directly exposed to strong winds, heavy rains, tornadoes, battering coastal waves and storm surge.
Acute distress reactions tend to dissipate for most survivors. These individuals rebound, regain function and resume their life roles.
But some hurricane survivors will experience more prolonged and intense symptoms. Factors that may cause enduring post-disaster distress are the severity of exposure to the storm hazards, ongoing adversity or lack of social support.
One practical strategy is to design a family disaster plan targeted toward decreasing disaster stress and maximizing positive coping when a hurricane threatens or strikes.
A family disaster plan is essential for disaster preparedness. It provides the blueprint for safeguarding your family during a disaster, keeping family members connected and informed, handling disaster stress and taking effective action to respond and recover.
Creating a family disaster plan should involve every member of the household and incorporate the particular needs of each family member, as well as pets. Special attention should be given to each child, older adult, persons with a disability or an individual with a health condition.
Andrew was 27 years ago and the Miami community recreated itself as a model for disaster resilience. Nevertheless, climate change is making storms progressively more dangerous. This reality demands renewed efforts from South Floridians to prepare — at individual, family, community, and city-wide levels — and step up to meet these threats to health and well-being.