Reclaiming Life and Community in the Wake of a Natural Disaster

Rear view of person in yellow hooded raincoat standing on flooded street looking at the water as it risesFires in California and hurricanes in the Atlantic have brought enormous tragedy and loss over the past few months. A statewide fire summary from CAL FIRE (The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) showed that, as of October 13, 2017, over 220,000 acres have burned, 3500 homes have been destroyed and 35 have lost their lives.

With regard to the hurricanes, The National Hurricane Center reports this Atlantic hurricane season is slated to go down as one of the worst in history. With costs closing in on 186.8 billion and a death toll that has surpassed 350, it is likely to take years to rebuild communities and heal the hearts and minds of those affected.

The period following such a loss may be so devastating it almost feels unreal. Everyone who is part of the impacted region is likely to be affected. The toll of the destruction cannot be measured solely in financial costs. Losses are also emotional, physical, psychological, and social: families have been displaced, homes lost, and careers and dreams put on hold. For many, the familiar landscape of their neighborhoods and backyards will never look the same.

The period of transition may be overflowing with fear and reluctance, and those involved in emergency recovery situations are often confronted with tremendous work, a sense of unrest, and lack of normalcy. Those affected by disaster may often feel exhausted and emotionally ill-equipped to face the burden at hand. Immense sadness, worry, and pain often follow.

But rebuilding begins with one brick, one call to a family member, one step toward the future at a time. With each step, we see that time brings forth the emergence of a new day, a day like any other. Hope can still spring through the rubble and hurt. And our great humanity, with its courage, compassion, and resilience, springs forth like a geyser.

Coping with Disaster

The period during and immediately after a disaster may be highly overwhelming. Many are likely to wonder where to even begin the process of dealing with the challenges at hand.

Coping during natural disasters generally takes two forms: problem-targeted coping and emotion-targeted coping. Problem-targeted coping may involve planning, implementing, and carrying out the tasks needed to solve the problems at hand. Emotion-targeted coping involves managing the emotional and psychological challenges faced by not only the individual(s) affected but by the community as a whole.

Problem-Targeted Coping

Following a natural disaster, problem-targeted coping typically takes priority. Abraham Maslow stated that our motivation to achieve certain needs occurs on a hierarchy. In other words, some needs take precedence over others (Mcleod, S., 2017). Our most basic need is for physical survival, or our own safety. Thus, safety needs such as food, clothing, and shelter will take precedent over emotional needs. That being said, being able to acquire shelter and food may provide great emotional boosts, which can lead to an increased sense of calm.

Starting with survival needs may be key.

  • Acquire supplies, including food, water, batteries, blankets, and other essentials.
  • Reach out to local community shelters and other resources in your area.
  • If possible, research survival resources and support online. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) operates a hotline for people experiencing disaster distress, for example.
  • If possible, use social media to inform family and friends of your location and situation.
  • Contact and register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
  • Assess damage and losses to homes and neighboring areas.
  • Understand indoor and outdoor hazards, including electrical dangers, roofing hazards, downed power lines, flooding risk, gas leaks, and fires, among others.

Emotion-Targeted Coping

When overwhelmed with tragedy, it can be easy to get lost in the catastrophic assumptions, fears, and expectations about will happen next. Try to spend time reflecting deeply on who and how you want to be, focusing on each moment.

Some challenges occurring in the wake of a natural disaster will not be quickly or easily solved. When problems have no quick solutions, emotion-focused coping may be a beneficial and necessary tool. An important step in restoring emotional balance may be first accepting the inability to change certain conditions being experienced. By making room for the problem in this way, people can often find it easier to effectively manage emotional pain and process the loss in order to move ahead toward the future.

After doing everything possible to manage and improve a situation, it may then be a helpful next step to begin working toward emotional coping. The following list suggests some tips for emotional and psychological coping.

Stay in touch with “right now” to avoid worrying about the future or dwelling on the past.

  • During times of great stress, it is important to have a sense of what is happening internally.
  • Notice breathing and emotions in addition to your physical body.
  • Mindful awareness can be increased by focusing attention on the self and the inner experience. The more aware you are of what you are feeling, the better able you are to know what you need.

Take time for deep reflection.

  • When overwhelmed with tragedy, it can be easy to get lost in the catastrophic assumptions, fears, and expectations about will happen next. Try to spend time reflecting deeply on who and how you want to be, focusing on each moment.
  • If you choose to be calm, engage your mind in ways that increase calmness for you and others. Playing word games or telling stories are two examples of ways to do this.
  • If you choose to be patient, identify what you might need to make room for and give yourself permission to carry the emotional burden of the long haul.

Focus on why you want to rebuild to better handle how you will rebuild.

  • Motivation is better achieved when we are aware of what drives us. Focus on why you need to pick up another brick, and you will be better able to stay to pick up one thousand bricks.
  • Focus on what will be most important in a week, a month, a year, three years, and longer.

Know the barriers to rebuilding.

  • Once you know why it is important to stay in the fight, identify what is most likely get in your way. Money? Depression? Fatigue? Resources?
  • Ask yourself how you will get around those barriers. If money is the problem, where will you be able to get more? Fundraising? Family? If fatigue is the problem, how can you get more energy? Drinking more water? Getting more rest?

Do what you do best.

  • Everyone has different talents, skills, experience, and training. By identifying your areas of expertise, you can figure out how you can be the most helpful—both to yourself and to others.
  • Whether your skill is in mechanics, art, science, engineering, communicating, caregiving, or planning, consider ways your aptitudes will help you and your community move forward.

Remember: Your survival mind is not your emotional mind.

The survival mind wants to make painful things better. The emotional mind wants to get better at viewing the painful things. Much of what people face following natural disasters is likely to involve problems that cannot be removed immediately. The survival mind will continue to try to find solutions even when a problem cannot be removed. When it is clear that a particular problem must remain, shift your focus away from the survival mind and onto the emotional mind. This can often be achieved by:

  • Making room for impatience, dependency, and feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness.
  • Remembering that partial success is still success. When the water rises, so to speak, you may to feel helpless. “No matter how much I clean, there will be more dirt.” But it’s possible to learn to manage your expectations by celebrating partial successes.
  • Not being afraid to use trial and error. The process of rebuilding typically requires constant adaptation and out-of-the-box thinking. Don’t be discouraged when something you try does not work. Instead, try again, with the knowledge that each attempt may be bringing you closer to success.

The list provided is not all-inclusive, and the strategies I’ve outlined are only designed to guide. I believe the most important strategy after a disaster involves believing in yourself and your community. Recovery is often painful and likely to present difficult challenges, but it is certainly possible—it has been achieved before and will be achieved again. Trust in your resilient self, and remember: with each new day, a new opportunity for growth will emerge.

References:

  1. Statewide Fire Summary. (2017, October 17). Retrieved from http://calfire.ca.gov/communications/communications_StatewideFireSummary
  2. Johnson, D. (2017, September 24). Is this the worst hurricane season ever? Here’s how it compares. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/4952628/hurricane-season-harvey-irma-jose-maria
  3. McLeod, S. A. (2017). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
  4. Rice, D. (2017, October 5). Not your imagination: This hurricane season has been much worse than usual. USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2017/10/05/not-your-imagination-hurricane-season-has-been-much-worse-than-usual/736649001

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  • 13 comments
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  • Alesha

    Alesha

    October 20th, 2017 at 7:43 AM

    It makes me beyond angry to think of the human suffering that is being allowed to continue in Puerto Rico. Would he ever allow the people of the mainland to hurt in this way and for that length of time? Of course not. They look like white bread America, and the people of the islands don’t. Don’t be immune to this blustering, demand equal treatment for all US citizens!

  • Justin LaPilusa

    Justin LaPilusa

    October 24th, 2017 at 12:52 PM

    Alesha,
    I agree. It seems almost unfathomable that in this day and age and in this country we could let people suffer.

  • Justin LaPilusa

    Justin LaPilusa

    October 24th, 2017 at 1:03 PM

    Thank you for commenting.

  • Alexis

    Alexis

    October 21st, 2017 at 7:54 AM

    There are so many things that you can do for other people that you might not think will make a difference in their lives but it certainly can. Clothing and food, water and care, all of these things are things that we can easily to give to others around us who are struggling to regain some form or normalcy in their lives. You might not be able to rewire the home or help them rebuild in a physical way, but sometimes it is more important to first show love and kindness, as this is where the first part of self rebuilding can begin.

  • Justin LaPilusa

    Justin LaPilusa

    October 24th, 2017 at 12:53 PM

    Alexis,

    Great point! I think for many of us we feel so small and insignificant against such a tragedy. But all it takes are a few small gestures to make a difference in somebody’s life.

  • Justin LaPilusa

    Justin LaPilusa

    October 24th, 2017 at 1:04 PM

    Thank you for commenting.

  • Todd

    Todd

    October 23rd, 2017 at 10:16 AM

    There are still thousands without access to even the smallest things that the rest of us take for granted on a daily basis.
    How can they be expected to recover emotionally when just their basic physical needs are going unmet?

  • Justin LaPilusa

    Justin LaPilusa

    October 24th, 2017 at 12:57 PM

    Todd,

    It’s incredibly sad to think of the kind of suffering going on right now. It’s easy to lose hope or to feel helpless. In an effort to gain some perspective on my own life,
    I try to reflect on what is happening in not only our back yard and country but the entire planet. Thank you for commenting.

  • nico

    nico

    October 23rd, 2017 at 3:56 PM

    So hard to see all of these things that I want to do and I am ready to get started on but you have to wait on the insurance and the permits and all of the other things that everyone else is waiting on too.

    It has definitely been a lesson in patience for me.

    Hopefully the old adage that good things come to those who wait will prove to be true for so many of us.

  • Justin LaPilusa

    Justin LaPilusa

    October 24th, 2017 at 1:00 PM

    Nico,

    I’m sorry to hear that you are going through this right now. I can’t imagine how frustrating and hopeless it must feel. Sometimes it’s not about putting down heavy stone, it’s about carrying it a little longer. I hope that you find the balance and resources you deserve soon. Thank you for commenting.

  • Janna

    Janna

    October 24th, 2017 at 10:37 AM

    Of course the healing can take so long, but it is for the best of the family when you can get back to some sense of normal, as quickly as possible. There will be so much that has to go into the rebuilding process and obviously it will be frustrating. Hopefully friends and the community can help you make it through it.

  • Justin LaPilusa

    Justin LaPilusa

    October 24th, 2017 at 1:02 PM

    Janna,

    Well said! It’s such a hard and long process. Hopefully through the process each person learns a little bit more about his or her strength and resilience. In the meantime, we all need to lend a helping hand. Thank you for commenting.

  • ginger

    ginger

    October 27th, 2017 at 11:34 AM

    In crises like this the problem is that for many people who have lost everything money is quite the obstacle.. Many of us live paycheck to paycheck and when a disaster comes along and you can’t work then surprise you don’t get pad and how is the recovery ever going to begin when you don’t have the funds to even get started? There are those who are fortunate to be able to start on their own and then get reimbursed but there are many of us who don’t have that luxury and the disaster has made the situation even worse than it already was before. I am not saying that money will fix everything because that is far from the truth but there are definitely times when a little bit of start up cash can help/

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