Caroline Sweatt-Eldredge

The Connected Life

What You Should Know When Disaster Strikes

Recovery and healing are possible following a natural disaster. Here's how.

Posted Sep 12, 2017

Texas National Guard/CC by 2.0
Source: Texas National Guard/CC by 2.0

When Hurricane Harvey swept onto the Texas coast, like most people in Houston I found myself glued to the local news for days on end. I refreshed the Twitter feeds of local meteorologists while pacing around my living room over and over, waiting for new information about the storm’s projected path and impact. As Harvey dropped literally trillions of gallons of water in a rainstorm that felt like it would never end, I watched in fear from my upstairs window as the bayou waters rose higher and higher, coming up the street toward where I live and flooding many of my neighbors’ homes in the process. Each night as I went to sleep, I anxiously ruminated on the possibility of waking up to water coming through my own front door.

My story is not rare. In the past several weeks, we’ve seen millions of people from the Texas Gulf Coast, Caribbean, and Florida impacted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Many more have been affected by extreme wildfires in the western US, a major earthquake in Mexico, and catastrophic flooding in Nepal. The road to recovery following a natural disaster is a long, winding one: In many ways, life will never go back to exactly the way things used to be. True recovery must include more than rebuilding our homes and replacing our lost possessions; it must also include caring for and nurturing our spirits.

As you process the emotional hurricane that follows the actual one, here’s what you should know:

1) We are all in this together. When disaster strikes, the trauma of everything that’s happened is somehow both deeply personal and incredibly universal. It’s hard to wrap your mind around how to move forward when everyone within a hundred-mile radius has their own story of fear, anxiety, and pain. We must remember, though, that although the intensity of our losses may differ in degree, every one of our stories matters. Pain is not a competition, nor is it ever exclusive. There’s room enough for all of our wounds and all of our stories—and it is only through the telling of them that we can truly heal.

2) Feel your feelings. Following a traumatic event such as a hurricane, you can expect for your emotions to feel a little out of sorts. You may feel anxious, energized, encouraged, angry, despondent, grief, numb, loved, cursed, and deeply, deeply tired...all within an afternoon. This is totally normal. It’s typical to experience a wide range of powerful emotions following a traumatic experience—and sometimes, to feel nothing at all. Allow whatever emotions come up for you to simply be present and acknowledged, even if they feel uncomfortable or don’t make sense. Your mind is processing the deep trauma of everything that’s happened, and that can be a messy, confusing, but ultimately healing journey.

3) This is a marathon, not a sprint. In the days following a massive disastrous event, you see an outpouring of immediate compassionate response. The Red Cross shows up with MREs and blankets while celebrities tweet their support. But now, after the cameras turn off and our national attention span moves on to the next thing, you find yourself in the slow, tedious business of true healing. Recovery is a process that requires time and space to work itself out, and our emotions are notoriously two steps behind or ahead of our circumstances. You may not feel the true depth of your loss until after you’ve replaced your furniture, installed new floors, and paid the contractor. You may continue to feel fear and anxiety long after Harvey’s rains finally ran out of steam (and anxiously track each subsequent tropical disturbance for hurricane seasons to come). This is all part of the long journey toward real recovery.

4) Give your heart a break. With so much pain, loss, and heartbreak everywhere you look, you may start to feel guilt anytime you look away. It is so important, now more than ever, that you turn off the news every now and then, put down your phone, and give your heart a break from the painful images and experiences all around you. Your friends and neighbors don’t need you to carry all of the weight of what has happened; they need you to walk alongside them in the recovery process. As you are able, seek moments of joy apart from what has just happened. You (and everyone around you) are more than what has happened—it’s okay to begin to reemerge into life.

5) Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Collective trauma like natural disasters often can make us feel isolated and alone when we need to reach for others the most. We can start to rank our pain and loss against the pain and loss of others and feel as if we’ve no right to ask for help comparatively. We must remember, though, that we do our very best healing when we are connected to supportive and caring others! Your friends and neighbors often want to help; helping is a big part of how we heal and create meaning following tragedy. Reach out to those around you when you need someone there. There’s no shame in leaning into connection.

6) Create meaning along the way. Trauma like widespread natural disasters can make the world around you feel like a random, chaotic, and dangerous place. All of the pain and destruction can feel meaningless and make you feel spent and empty. Over time, these attitudes can lead us toward depression or increased anxiety if we aren’t proactive about finding meaning along the way. Creating meaning following a traumatic experience doesn’t mean relying on trite, overly simplistic platitudes like “everything happens for a reason.” It means finding your purpose in the midst of pain. For many, this looks like volunteering at a shelter or food bank. For others, this looks like calling up your loved ones and checking in for the first time in a long time. Creating meaning looks like knocking on your neighbor's door and offering a hand when needed. Leaning into this purposeful kind of life is an integral part of how we move forward together following disasters.

As we rebuild, recover, and reemerge into our lives following collective traumas like natural disasters, we must not forget that our spirits and our hearts are as much in need of attention as our homes and possessions. Allow yourself to feel what you need to feel as you move forward: Remember, we truly are all in this together.