Emotionally Responding to a (Hurricane) Disaster: Short-Term, Long-Term, Adults, and Children

Emotionally Responding to a (Hurricane) Disaster: Short-Term, Long-Term, Adults, and Children

Fight, Flight, Freeze, Resilience, and Resolve

Dear Colleagues,


   A few short weeks ago, Hurricane Ian swept through Florida (and many other states), devastating property and lives.

   While many have directly experienced natural and/or weather-related disasters over the past decade and more, most of us empathetically view the impact from the comfort of our living rooms, moving on when the news cycle recycles.

   And it’s not that we forget or don’t care. It’s just that we become consumed with our own lives, contexts, challenges, and realities.

   But for those at a disaster’s “ground zero,” there are compelling physical, safety, psychological, financial, and other issues related to short- and long-term survival.

   And critically, decisions need to be made.

   But decision-making during a crisis often occurs in the absence of all the needed information.

   Moreover, some of the decisions are made for you—for example, by emergency management teams, law enforcement, FEMA, or insurance companies. Some of the decisions that you can make have limited options or degrees of freedom. And some decisions are made where, in the moment, you cannot fully predict whether they truly are the best decisions.

In the Eye of the Storm

   While I was not physically present, Hurricane Ian has me closer to a disaster, disaster management, and the decisions above than ever before in my life.

   You see. . . not five days before Hurricane Ian blew through Fort Myers, Florida with its 150+ mile per hour winds and an unimaginable storm surge from the Gulf. . . my wife and I bought a property there, and sold our home in Little Rock.

   When the Hurricane hit, we were still in Little Rock, but one of our sons—who has worked on Sanibel Island for almost 20 years—was in his apartment in Fort Myers near our new home. In addition, many of his friends and colleagues rode out the storm on Sanibel Island, which was virtually destroyed by Ian.

   Fortunately, my son and his friends all survived. . . although some needed to be airlifted from Sanibel because parts of the causeway—the only road connecting the Island to the mainland—were damaged.

   Many of my son’s friends have lost all of their possessions, their homes and cars are total losses, their jobs are gone, and—without electricity and water for many days—their very survival was tested.

   For us, we received notice that our newly purchased home also survived. And now, it seems that a November or December move-in is possible.

   We all are truly blessed. . . but this experience, for me, has been (and continues to be) a case study in how people respond during, immediately after, and over time to a crisis.

The Anatomy of a Natural Disaster

   While there are many ways to “cut the cake,” there are four phases that occur during and after a natural disaster.

   These can be generalized to many other crisis situations—in life, at home, or in a school or educational setting. And for my educational colleagues, these can be applied to ourselves, our colleagues, and especially to our students.

   Relative to the latter, we need to be astute observers and learners because we may not initially or immediately know (a) how long the student has been in crisis; (b) what the crisis—with all its variations and dynamics—entails; and (c) which phase of the crisis the student is in.

   Indeed, there are times when a student’s in-school emotional or behavioral interactions actually represent an out-of-school peer or family-related dilemma or crisis.

   Given everything that has occurred over the past two to three years, the potential that this is true is higher than ever before.

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The Four Phases When Responding to a Natural Disaster

   The four phases when experiencing a natural disaster are:

  • Survival: One’s immediate emotional and behavioral response to a disaster in progress
  • Stabilization: One’s post-event actions focused on continued survival and an initial stabilization of the settings, people, and subsistence
  • Assessment and Rebuilding: Making decisions—based on resources, time, and personal status and preferences— on how, where, and with whom to rebuild one’s life, home, livelihood, and future
  • Recognizing and Applying Lessons Learned: Stepping back and reflecting on the personal, familial, professional, and other lessons learned during and after the disaster. . . and applying these to future prevention, preparation, and planned actions.

   Critically, some of these phases will overlap, and their timeframes will differ as a function of the disaster itself and the people and communities that are experiencing them.

   But more important are the emotional and behavioral reactions, responses, and cycles that people experience in the midst of a disaster—individually (adults versus adolescents versus children versus toddlers), and as a function of their life settings (for example, home and family, work and community, school and with friends).

   Significantly, it is important to factor in people’s available resources—for example, their financial resources, as well as their community’s access to resources.

   Let’s be honest.

   People with financial resources can more easily leave the devastation within a disaster area, and rebuild—over time— more quickly than those without.

   And low income communities often receive less immediate disaster response and relief, and less long-term and sustained rebuilding attention and resources.

Riding Out Hurricane Ian: In Little Rock and Fort Myers

   When I watched Hurricane Ian hit Florida’s Gulf Coast on the Weather Channel, my immediate response was to freeze in disbelief.

   I was transfixed by scenes of 150+ mph winds, roofs being blown off buildings, hotels and houses flooded instantaneously by the storm surge, and debris being projected through the air like missiles in a war.

   I also froze because I was powerless. There was nothing that I could do during the storm or its immediate aftermath to protect my newly-acquired home in Florida, or to protect my son who lived there and was riding out the storm.

   But much of my “Ian experience” was vicarious.

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   Survival. As Ian hit Fort Myers, we had limited and spotty cell phone communication with our son, as he spent most of the storm fighting to hold his front door closed while watching water simultaneously seep into his apartment.

   Beyond his own safety, he was more worried about his friends on Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island.

   Stabilization. Immediately after the storm—without electricity or water—our son was isolated by a round-the-clock curfew, he was cut-off from local information or resources, he could see the storm’s extensive damage from his balcony, and virtually everything in his life was being controlled by other people or other forces.

   Summarizing the few, brief phone conversations immediately after Ian left the area, my wife noted that, while my son was trying to assure her through his calm demeanor, she knew that he was in shock—momentarily traumatized by surviving the worst hurricane to ever hit his community.

   Over the next few days, as electricity and internet service was restored, my son reconnected with his friends, and began to help others who fared much worse than him. Social media interactions became a God-send, and he waited in long lines for water, food, and eventually, to sign up for unemployment and other services. 

   After these initial experiences, I received a text from him that simply said, “I have seen things in the last few days that I have never seen in my life.”

   Assessment and Rebuilding. Eventually, about two weeks after Ian, my son drove to Little Rock for “a visit.”

   This actually was an opportunity for him to escape from a community in crisis to a more normalized setting—helping him to physically, emotionally, and situationally recalibrate and re-establish a sense of stability and self-determination.

   During this time. . . removed from the ever-present reminders of Ian’s impact, triggered by simply walking out of his apartment. . . he has been able to more calmly and objectively evaluate his status and circumstances. This, I am sure, will result in a realistic, multi-faceted rebuilding plan.

   [NOTE: We and he are nowhere near the Recognizing and Applying Lessons Learned recovery phase right now.]

Fight, Flight, Freeze. . . or All Three?

   During a crisis or situations involving high levels of emotionality, the amygdala in our brain and our broader limbic system are programmed to react.

   Traditionally, this results in a conditioned “Fight, Flight, or Freeze” response.

   But I want to suggest that this response (a) is cyclical—across the four phases above; (b) may vary—for the same person—over time, in different situations, and based on previous crisis situations, responses, and resolutions; and (c) may not always be externally apparent.

   This is especially important to note for those working and/or interacting with children and adolescents. . . in school or other educational settings, or in after-school or other away-from-home settings.

   For example, for adults, during the Survival stage of a disaster, most people initially freeze—some for a matter of seconds, and others for longer periods of time. Then, their “survival instinct” kicks in (or someone pushes them into action), and a “fight” or “flight” response results.

   During Stabilization and Assessment and Rebuilding, the same patterns prevail. Some are actively and constructively involved in the process, while others may be emotionally or behaviorally “paralyzed”—requiring outside motivation, assistance, decision-making, or intervention.

   Fight or flight, here, take on a different context. For some, stabilization and rebuilding requires that they leave (flight) the community struck by the disaster, and “start a new life.” For others, they are hell-bent (fight) on staying, restoring, and not letting the source of the disaster “win.”

   Ultimately, during the last phase, most people eventually rebuild to the extent that they can, reconcile the unpredictable nature of life and the unwanted and unfair tragedies that occur, and consider and apply the disaster “lessons learned.”

   This is not to say that those experiencing significant disasters have completely emotionally “healed,” or that they will not emotionally revisit or “flashback” when triggered by similar or impending events (like, for example, reports of a future hurricane).

   But. . . most people do cope with devastating events over time. Recovery is a process, everyone is on their own timeline, and there is no one set formula that works for every person.

Helping Children Cope with Disasters

   The National Association of School Psychologists has produced a number of fact sheets and handouts with reminders of how to help students deal with disasters.

   Among their most important recommendations for adults and educators:

  • During a disaster event, children look to the significant adults in their lives for guidance on how to manage their reactions after the immediate threat is over. Parents, teachers, and other caregivers can help children and youth cope in the aftermath of a natural disaster by remaining calm and reassuring children that they will be all right.

   This occurs when adults:

  • Remain calm and reassuring. 
  • Acknowledge and normalize their feelings. 
  • Encourage children to talk about disaster-related events. 
  • Promote positive coping and problem-solving skills. 
  • Emphasize children’s resiliency.
  • Strengthen children’s friendships and peer support.
  • Take care of their own needs, and avoid using drugs or alcohol to feel better.

   In addition:

  • With the help of naturally occurring social support systems, most children will be fine. However, some may have reactions requiring professional help.
  • Adults should consider getting professional support for children whose significant and pervasive reactions continue or worsen after a week or more.
  • Communities that experience repeated disasters or crises may be at risk for compound or cumulative trauma. Parents and schools should work together to provide consistent and strategic support to children, recognizing that their social, emotional, and behavioral needs after a disaster will vary and change over time.


   While natural or weather-related disasters are uncommon, they do occur, and it is important to learn from them. . . just in case.

   This Blog has shared some personal experiences and personal/professional reflections prompted by Hurricane Ian’s assault last month—beginning in Florida and extending up the Atlantic Coast.

   While we could shift into a conversation of “why bad things happen to good people” (Kushner, 1981), let’s recognize that sometimes “bad things just happen to people.”

   Life, to some extent, is a series of probabilities and possibilities. Religion, destiny, or predetermination aside, life often just happens, and we do our best to prepare, respond, and learn how to be resilient—with support from family, friends, and others.

   For some, the initial “bad things” in a crisis or disaster can turn out to be the “best things” to happen in their lives. . . many times because we learn to overcome the inherent challenges, uncovering hidden strengths and/or a realization of the blessings in our lives.

   In this regard, we—as adults—need to be mentors and coaches for our children and adolescents. From a developmental perspective, they experience disasters or crises differently than us, and their ability to process and understand what is occurring, short-term and long-term, similarly differs.

   Resilience occurs through both internal and external interactions. For children and adolescents, however, the internal often is a function of how we externally guide, help, and support them.

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   Thank you, as always, for reading and thinking about what I share in these Blogs. I hope they are useful and relevant to you, and that you can apply some of the information, reflections, or “lessons” to your personal and professional lives.

   If I can help you, your colleagues, your school, your district, or a related professional setting to complete an organizational, school improvement, SEL, multi-tiered services, or special education needs assessment and strategic planning process, feel free to contact me at any time, and let’s discuss the critical directions that you want or need to go.