Sitting in my grandmother’s car as my mother was driving me to Junior High, the pouring rains were blinding. The wipers were at the highest speed a Mercury Comet had and—suddenly—the driver’s side wiper came off and began grinding
the glass as my mother leaned over toward me to try to see if it were safe to cross Sunrise Highway as it began to flood.
There were other situations in my youth that molded my personal picture of what the power of Nature could do…although, I would have to say, none could be called a disaster for me or my family as we lived almost two miles inland.
Although disasters have certain shared characteristics associated with them, our specific reactions will differ. Even when we ‘share’ a disaster, our individual perceptions of, and responses to, that shared event will differ. My junior high building wasn’t impacted by that particular hurricane, while the other in town was flooded. All we saw was the impact of split sessions for months!
Individual reactions are an interaction among the characteristics of the disaster, the individual’s protective as well as risk factors, and the response of the community at large.
When we look at characteristics of disasters, we should take into consideration their size (scope, intensity, duration), cause (natural vs. human-caused), whether they were expected or unexpected, and their timing (time of day, day of week, season).
As individuals and a community, we need to focus on the fact that recovery is the expected outcome. There are some risk factors, though, that can postpone or hinder that recovery: vulnerable populations (such as children and the elderly), people with serious mental illness, those with physical disabilities or substance dependency, as well as people living in poverty.
What we lose during disasters will be different for each of us from loss of life to loss of a cherished photo album. We might lose our way of life and feel personally vulnerable. Perhaps our identity or self-esteem was intertwined with what was lost—a home or a business. We might begin to lose trust in God or other protective powers.
This is when our preparedness can cushion the disaster’s impact. If you don’t have a To Go Kit or a Disaster Preparedness tote, visit our Health Department’s website for guidance (www.clintoncountygov.com/Departments/ Health/readiness.html). It will let you be more resilient when your
life faces upheaval.
When we are in the midst of a disaster, or coming out of it into the recovery phase, it is best to remember that post-disaster traumatic stress is not the same as post-traumatic stress disorder. The undue stress on our minds and bodies can be remediated by establishing safety, reducing our reactions to stress, restoring our rest and sleep while connecting to our social supports and critical resources in our community. And this is all easier if we were prepared ahead of time.
We can be empowered by focusing on our practical, emotional and physical needs while staying in the “here and now” rather than raising the “what if” and worst-case scenarios. Being mindful and having a sense of appreciation are two assets during this time.
The stronger our community is and the better our communication, the shorter the recovery time—both physically and mentally. Preparing now is something each one of us can do, whether we live alone or with others. It will give peace of mind—not in the moment of the disaster, but in its aftermath. When we know we are in control, as much as possible, of our future, we can be strong enough to reach out and lend a hand to others. And that social connection is truly the healing touch.
Bonnie Black is the Director for Employees Assistance Services, where she presents workshops and seminars to the more than 120 organizations which provide this benefit to their employees. In her role as an Intrinsic Coach her goal is to bring out the best in individuals and organizations.