Coping With the Psychological Impact of Hurricane Irene
Caldwell College Professor says be a survivor, not a victim.
As many residents of North Jersey continue to deal with the aftermath of flooding and damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, mental health professionals say it is important to pay attention to one’s emotional needs.
Caldwell College Psychology Professor Dr. Pedoto, who is a licensed psychologist in New Jersey and New York, says there are personal losses that are very tough to deal with as people go through the cleanup and recovery.
“Loss of legacy is a major concern. By this I mean the loss of valued memorabilia such as photographs and other personal items.”
For those who are reeling from the devastation, he says it is very important to “stay connected to friends and family and use this support to assist in recovery.”
Many New Jersey residents are weary and spent. There has been so much exhausting physical and mental work associated with the flooding and havoc from the storm. Dr. Pedoto advises that if you have a friend who has gone through the hurricane, “reach out to him or her.” He says it is important that if you have gone through the trauma to “share your story, do things to relax, and get back into your routine as soon as it is feasible.”
When a disaster strikes, Dr. Pedoto notes, “The first order of business is practical. Make sure you are safe.” Eventually, it becomes important to “tell your story of the events and to reframe—I’m a survivor not a victim.” Many people also see natural disasters as acts of fate, he says, and for some “spirituality and faith are important aids and elements of recovery.”
Not everyone who has gone through the hurricane will experience extended anxiety or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and some people might even experience a sense of mastery having “weathered the storm” literally and figuratively. At the same time, Dr. Pedoto says there are warning signs of PTSD that can include, intrusive daytime memories or dreams concerning the event, hyperarousal in the form of an exaggerated startle response or sleep disturbance, emotional numbing or inability to experience normal emotions in response to daily life situations or in relating to others, and depression.
“If these signs are present then you should seek professional help,” Dr. Pedoto said.
Children and the elderly are also generally more vulnerable. Other factors aside from age that can have affect on someone’s vulnerability include: history of previous trauma(s), basic temperament, and presence of preexisting psychiatric disorders.
When Hurricane Irene slammed New Jersey on August 27, Dr. Pedoto was at his home in Sparta, New Jersey. Little did he know that he would soon have to evacuate and would end up helping out at the Sussex Vo-Tech evacuation shelter.
Dr. Pedoto’s home is located on a hill. When the hurricane hit, water came down the mountain towards his home and carried a boulder, “the size of a volkswagen”, which in turn pulled soil, rocks, and trees for almost 1/3 of a mile in a mudslide,” he said.
Fortunately the boulder did not hit his home, but the mudslide, which was one to three feet deep blocked the road and he had no way out, other than to walk. To make matters worse, Dr. Pedoto had no electricity and no phone and there was the threat of more debris coming down and hitting his home. The police advised he evacuate.
Dr. Pedoto, who has spent 18 years as a licensed psychologist in New York and New Jersey, arrived at the shelter and starting informally doing “psychological first aid,” assisting the elderly “helping them process the situation, taking them to the bathroom, getting food”. It was very tough for the aged to be displaced. He listened to them tell their stories.
“That is an important part of the processing and dealing with trauma,” Dr. Pedoto said.
This article was contributed by Caldwell College.