Healthy Aging

healthy aging

Preserving Mental Health During Hurricanes

September is the peak hurricane time for the Atlantic Coast so the question is are we ready for the inevitable day when one comes our way? These recurrent threats to our island, and in one form or another of our existence as we have learned to enjoy it, represent major stressors and as such can affect us mentally: so this article is about minimizing that aspect, since we can do nothing about the direction of these powerful storms.

Stress is best defined as a condition over which we have little or no control. There is no better example than a large, potentially devastating storm (category four hurricane, like Hugo in 1989) headed in our direction. Stress symptoms that ensue from such a threat include increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, release of all sorts of hormones, sleep deprivation, anxiety, and sometimes in some people frank fear.

If stress persists for long periods and unabated it can have major physiologic as well as psychological affects on our health. Fortunately, hurricanes come and go and in general do not have lasting affects - unless we sustain a direct hit like Charleston (but not Seabrook) had with Hugo in 1989. 

The Crescendo Effect

The very nature of modern hurricane forecasting ironically adds to the stress of the season. Afterall, we now are alerted about “tropical disturbances” the moment they float off the African coast. And as they develop and get “better formed” and finally are named we are told about it by our faithful weather men and women as well as the print media, and NOAA weather bulletins. So from the very earliest time we are made aware of a potential danger long before there is any real danger.

Finally, if the course is our way we are told that the storm poses a “threat to the mainland,” and we already have been able to imagine the potential disruption that the hurricane can bring to our island. The newspaper, the local television stations and the weather channel begin an early and unrelenting portrayal of the potential harm that these massive storms pose to us. It is impossible to ignore this barrage of early warnings and as a storm gets closer to Seabrook, only the most stoic can ignore it. For most of us even when the weather is picture perfect on our island, we are able to imagine the high winds and rain out in the ocean. This is the beginning of stress which only increases if the storm’s path is predicted to come to Seabrook. Even those who have never seen a hurricane because of Katrina and other storms coverage by the national media, everyone knows what could happen and the anxiety level rises. This is when the stress sets because we can now imagine the consequences and we realize despite all the hurricane preparedness literature and education – we know we are not prepared!

Some of the questions that plague (stress) us are about evacuation: should we leave Seabrook, what should we take with us, should we board up our homes (or have someone else do it), is our insurance going to cover hurricane damage, where can we go, what routes should we take, who will let us know about the damage, when can we return. Then, as with Hurricane Floyd a few years ago there is the entire mess of evacuation on I-26 which resembled a parking lot more than an interstate - much has been written about “road rage” and the problems that this adds to evacuation. The fact that everyone leaves at the same time is the fundamental problem and there are just not enough exits in the Low Country.

Mental Health Prevention Plan

Hurricanes certainly create acute stress disorders that might resemble Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. These conditions are caused by events - usually individually suffered traumatic events, but may be natural disasters. There are methods employed to prevent serious after affects of major trauma and although hurricanes are not generally considered the kind of trauma that provokes these syndromes - there are some lessons in preserving mental health that apply to hurricanes. The table at the right includes some steps to follow for hurricane mental health - these are entirely unproved, but borrowed by me from both the lay and medical literature as a method to minimize the stress and trauma of a major hurricane.

The first way to deal with hurricanes from a mental health standpoint is to accept the fact that with Atlantic island living hurricanes are the bad that goes with the good (see the table). Hurricanes happen. One can become preoccupied with the course of a storm and this is probably unhealthy - periodic updates are necessary, but not too frequent. Since hurricanes are as certain as the ebb and flow of the tide on Seabrook, one should prepare for them by planning. The time for planning is during the non-hurricane season. A written plan is desirable including preparing a “hurricane box” that contains all the essentials that are required. Floyd taught us that we need to have alternative evacuation routes to I-26: ‘nuff said. A final and crucial step is to have an established communication link with a reliable information source regarding Seabrook. The Seabrook Property Owner’s association, for example, has a website, but it did not provide useful information after Floyd. The Post-Courier website was better (gave information on Kiawah), but not perfect. Authorities and officials on our island need to decide how best to provide reliable information about the status of Seabrook after a hurricane so that those who have evacuated can ease their anxiety and stress.

Hurricane Mental Health Plan

  1. Accept the fact that hurricanes happen
  2. Avoid preoccupation with storm progress
  3. Have a well-developed personal storm plan
  4. Map alternate evacuation routes and places to stay
  5. Establish contact(s) to get information
  6. Leave early, do not wait until the last minute

© Medical University of South Carolina | 171 Ashley Avenue, Charleston, SC 29425