Hurricane Irene comes at an ironically opportune time, as emotions intensify with the approach of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorism attacks. While Irene is a natural disaster compared to the man-made terrorism of 9/11, emotional reactions – and coping -- are similar. My advice in the wake of Irene follows.
Talking about irony, yesterday I was in Australia, making a presentation about natural disasters at a psychology conference, saying that, at that very moment, a hurricane was hitting my own country. Also ironically, I had just finished a book about “Living in an Environmentally Traumatized World” about earthquakes, floods, tsunamis and how to cope. Given that I was talking in that presentation about being a first responder at major disasters around the world, and how to deal with the emotional impact, it hit me that I had to be home to do that very thing.
So I left two days early to make my way back to New York City when everyone was advised to evacuate. After getting to Washington, when all the NY airports were closed, I drove from Washington DC to New York – again despite advisories.
My message: “Get the facts, but also address the feelings.”
And to New Yorkers: Be prepared but do not panic.
Sadly, Irene has been a deadly storm that has tragically claimed lives and caused destruction in its wake. But as it hits New York City, the Tropical Storm has been downgraded to Category 1 storm. Certainly there is cause to be on alert -- stay off the roads and remain indoors. We have been warned, including by politicians -- who have to be super-cautious, especially in light of the disastrous way events like Hurricane Katrina were handled. And media has to give us the most drastic news. Some areas are hit worse than others – with flooding and power outages that will leave a “mess” -- but Irene is not as treacherous in the Big Apple as was thought. The rain out my window is as light as any other downpour.
Some professional reflections and advice for New Yorkers:
(A) For adults:
1) If there is no reason to go outside, don’t. But if you must, don’t be overly frightened.
2) Use being prepared as a lesson for any disaster. Even though Irene has lost her fury, the drill about what to do in an emergency is not just an intellectual exercise now, it’s a real run-through.
3) Know what to do: Stay indoors in a safe place; make an emergency kit (flashlights, food, radio, batteries), charge your cell phone
4) Make sure to have people you can count on, staying in touch continually. (My friend Russell was emailing me from the moment the news hit, telling me about travel options not just generally but that apply to my exact situation).
5) Be aware of any past experiences when you have felt out of control or trapped, that could be triggered
6) Manage your reactions by doing something to feel in control. Do reassuring self talk (“I can take care of myself and my loved ones”. Do relaxing breathing exercises.
(B) For the family:
(1) Make that emergency kit (mentioned above) together
(2) Post phone numbers to reach each other and emergency personal (electrical company, police, etc.)
1) Pay particular attention to how kids are reacting. Since they’ve been told to stay at home, you don’t want them to be frightened to go out. Fears of going outside can lead to their not wanting to go to school this week, for fear of what would happen to them or to you.
2) Don’t reveal to kids your own fears of what could happen, to prevent escalating their fears.
3) Use this experience as a teachable moment about “Acts of Mother Nature” – offering a geology and natural science lesson, but also a practical lesson about what they should do in emergencies (where to find shelter, numbers to call to reach you and others)
4) Be reassuring, that you will keep them safe, and that others (the mayor, police, electrical company, etc.) are doing what they can to keep them safe. Make them feel safe by holding them, giving them attention.
5) Put precautions in place. (e.g. make sure they have a cell phone or a way to get in touch with you).
(6) Have kids participate in making that family emergency kit (flashlight, canned food, etc.)
(7) Be reassuring: “This might be scary but remember we have this plan in place about what to do to be safe".
(8) Limit – as much as possible – their seeing sensationalized stories on TV or internet (e.g. of children being lost, orphaned; pets being abandoned).
(9) Keep kids involved in some useful activity.
(10) Ask children what they think about the situation to correct any inaccurate ideas, and ask how they feel, to address their emotions.
Some personal experience and reflections:
While everyone was first being told to evacuate my city- or to stay indoors and not drive– I choose to drive INTO the storm.” As I mentioned, I had been in Sydney Australia -- at a board meeting and conference of an organization I represent at the United Nations (the World Council of Psychotherapy) -- and changed my ticket to come home two days early to be here in my city. Why? Because I was talking at the conference about coping with natural disasters, so how could I not be in my city when one such event was happening? I had been here during 9/11 and have been a “first responder” in many natural disasters on these shores (e.g. Hurricane Katrina), and worldwide (e.g. the earthquake in Haiti and China, and the Asian tsunami). And because I anticipated that dealing with the emotional aspect of things would be important, when all the news was being covered.
All the airports in the NY area were closed, and the United airline personnel at the Sydney airport advised me to stay in Australia — or they could get me as far as San Francisco and then only back to NY on Wednesday! Not good enough, said I. Besides, I had to be in Bonn Germany by Friday for a UN conference. Fortunately, I thought to ask about flying in to a neighboring city (lesson: you should always think about those options for yourself as someone else might not!). Surprise, the Washington D.C.(Dulles) airport was open! Of course, it could close by the time I reached the states but I took the chance anyway, to get closer to home and with trust that I’d figure something out when I arrived (lesson: always have plan B,C, etc.)
When I got to DC, all trains and buses were cancelled. How to get there? Hertz- rent-a-car! Lesson: when you are really determined, you can find a way to make something happen. I believe, "There is always a way."
Foolhardy to drive? People would think so, given the expectation of high winds and pounding rain. But I didn’t believe I would be in any danger. Inside, I felt calm and knew I would be safe -- a valuable feeling in an emergency. I was also relieved to see a few other cars, and even a number of emergency vehicles on the road. I was also reassured remembering that I have been on the road in far worse conditions of wind and rain. Once on the NY Turnpike in winter, my car was being thrown out of my lane by high winds and slipping on sheets of ice, as pellets beat the windshield. And just two weeks ago, sleeting rain on the Jersey Turnpike made cars crawl at 5 miles an hour.
Driving on the Jersey Turnpike up to NYC in the wee hours of this morning, I reflected about how some of my philosophies were confirmed.
1) Worse case scenarios don't always manifest. A big storm was once before supposed to hit NYC, but died down and even turned off shore.
2) Tuning in to my inner voice about what to do is useful. Of course, backing up intuition with some data also helps. In this case, I heard Mayor Bloomberg say on TV, at midnight when I was standing in the Hertz Rental Car, “Go to sleep, and I’ll speak to you more in the morning.” Go to sleep! If there had been a real emergency, no one should be sleeping, Trees might be falling, and windows might be shattering. If the Mayor and all of us should go to sleep, it would certainly be safe to drive.
3) Fear does not have to manifest. I never felt frightened on the highway and was always confident that the road would be clear. This, despite warning signs with red-lit lettering. One read “Hurricane Warning, seek shelter”. Another said “Flooding ahead, after exit 11” and another, “Standing Water. Take alternate route.” We had already driven through one big puddle on the highway near Baltimore -- before the sign -- and there was only one tiny puddle after the sign. The rain was light at times, and never to the point where you couldn’t see out of the windshield. Mayve the signs hadn't ben updated. Another sign on the Jersey Turnpike said “Road closed,” while I had called my sister to look online and she found no such warning. Lesson: checking the internet for traffic conditions is useful.
4) Luck – or some divine intervention – plays a role in natural disasters. My friend who was driving was panicked about crossing the Delaware Bridge, given its height and exposure. But when we got there, the rain – and wind -- totally stopped. All was calm as we crossed the bridge, adn then when we got to the end, the rain started dribbling again. It was as if a God had a hand in that.