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This Old House - Do-it-Yourself

The Psychological Effects of Disasters

Written by Posted On Friday, 26 October 2007 00:00

When disaster strikes, humans react in different ways, but most will experience anxiety and stress. How one copes with that stress and anxiety differs from person to person.

Some will retreat into their homes and watch the news with trepidation while others band together and funnel their stress into productive volunteer activities. No one way of coping with such angst is better than the other, as long as people work through their feelings.

As a resident of Southern California, San Diego to be exact, our recent fires have reminded me of the importance of having disaster plans in place not only on the civic and governmental levels, but also on the individual level. Natural disasters can occur anywhere with or without warning, but having emergency action plans can help restore one's sense of control during a time of crisis. Two actions one can take in preparing for an emergency situation are evacuation and staying behind.

Evacuation may seem simple: get in your car and leave. However, many roads may be closed, limiting your escape from the area. This issue was realized during the recent fires in San Diego. I, like many, have become dependent upon the freeway system. However, at one point during the fires all three freeways leading out of the county were closed because of fires.

I felt somewhat helpless because I did not know how I would leave the county if the need arose. So in preparation I went through some recent maps to identify multiple surface streets that I could use to flee. I should note that this wasn't an easy process because the Pacific Ocean is on the west, Mexico is to the south, and Camp Pendleton Marine Base is to the north. All of these are formidable barriers to pass. Notwithstanding, I now keep a small notebook in my car that lists several evacuation routes along with a map.

If evacuating the region is not an option, there are many measures one can take to be prepared. The first would be to create multiple reciprocal pacts with family and friends to ensure that you have a place to go if you have to leave your home. I suggest multiple pacts because some of these people may be out of town, so you will need a back-up plan. Also, keep in mind that disasters tend to be region specific. For example, the San Diego fires mostly affected people residing in north and southeast San Diego County. Hence having a pact with another person residing in the same region is likely to do little good. It would be best to form multiple pacts with people who live further a way.

Because most disasters (earthquakes, tornados, flash floods) arrive unannounced it is a good idea to identify a family member who lives out-of-state. This way if a family is separated and unable to come together they can contact a central place (an operator) where communication can be disseminated. Again, two or three "operators" should be selected just in case the primary operator is out-of-town. I recommend selecting someone normally easy to reach. Keep in mind that some people travel a lot, spend a lot of time outside and away from a phone, or simply rarely answer the phone. These people will not make good operators.

With disasters, we each need to be prepared for loss of water and electricity. Couple that with a high probability of sharing your reserves with people in your pacts, or even strangers, and food and water won't go as far as you may have intended.

In speaking with friends who weathered one of the Florida hurricanes, this issue of not having enough food and water was realized when their friends lost their home and thus they had more mouths to feed at a time when most stores were closed. I have opted to keep my home stocked with canned soups because they not only provide nourishment but also help with hydration. Also, many soups can be consumed hot or cold. Remember, however, to either purchase flip-tops or to keep manual can openers around.

Disaster planning is not only important for saving lives, but also to help people maintain a sense of control. Without this sense of control many will engage in fight or flight behaviors, which lead to irrational and often dangerous behaviors.

In San Diego this didn't seem to be an issue because the local news and city officials made us all feel they had everything under control and many well-organized evacuation sites were provided. However, some disasters or unique circumstances may not allow for this kind of calm and we all will need to make provision for our family and ourselves. Through good primary and back-up plans we will be less likely to panic and more likely to maintain rational thought leading to better decisions likely to save lives.

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