ENC Health Currents: The Mental Health Toll Of Hurricane Florence

Nov 7, 2018

Credit Creative Commons

Recovering from Hurricane Florence goes beyond the physical damages to homes and businesses.  The emotional and psychological trauma from storm continues to have long lasting effects on some residents in Eastern North Carolina. 

Dr. Celeste Crawford, assistant clinical professor in the department of addition and rehabilitation studies at East Carolina University and director of Navigate Counseling Clinic said there’s a range of reactions people have after surviving a major storm. 

“A lot of times, people feel a lot of fear and anxiety, sadness or sense of loss or depression,” she said.  “They might feel disoriented or out of sorts because everything is just disrupted.  They might have trouble sleeping or just feeling keyed up or just edgy.”

Most people experience these effects in the days and weeks after a storm.  But if symptoms continue or get worse, post-traumatic stress disorder may be a concern, said Crawford.

“Anything after a month, you know where people are feeling intense feelings, maybe reliving the event or having nightmares or flashbacks.  That might be more true for people who had to be evacuated from their home.”

Those most susceptible to developing PTSD include people that have been through other traumatic storm events, those with a pre-existing mental illness or those recovering from substance abuse. 

“People who have socioeconomic stressors certainly often experience the storm in a heavier way because they don’t have maybe as many resources to fall back on.  They don’t have flood insurance, so they don’t have savings, they don’t have time off from work, they don’t have family and friends who have resources to offer them.”

Children are also susceptible to developing PTSD, especially if the home they lived in was destroyed or the child had to change schools. 

“They’re also very sensitive to the adults in their life and how the adults are experiencing the situation,” said Crawford.  “A lot of times they won’t talk about what they saw but you’ll see it in the way they play.  You’ll start seeing themes in their drawings.  If they’re playing with their toys, they might act out some of the scenarios they experienced.”

Crawford added children express their emotions in less verbal ways, including trouble sleeping, having nightmares and bedwetting. 

Parents who have children showing signs of PTSD are encouraged to seek help from an expert.  For adults, PTSD is treatable with medication and by learning how to manage emotions and change thought patterns.  Crawford suggests anyone with feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, anger or numbness seek out a support group or counseling. 

“Sometimes talking it out and being reassured that your experience is a normal response and it’s not going to be that way forever can often, it doesn’t make you feel better in the sense that you’re over your feelings, but it sometimes can just give you that extra stamina to persevere.”

Last month, Barbara Bornemann, Retired Lutheran pastor, and Pam Bonina, a Grief Share facilitator, held several Coping With Life After Florence Support Group meetings at Centenary Methodist Church in New Bern.  The support group provided a safe-space to talk about the stress of evacuating or the anxiety they experienced not knowing what will be left after the hurricane.

“Sharing your story of loss after the hurricane is one of the most powerful ways to not only cope but find hope,” Bornemann said.  “It’s important to grieve so we can heal.”

75-year-old Frances Ordiway attended the support group on October 18th.  During the hurricane, she had to be rescued when about two feet of water entered her home.

“And I was standing in water about three inches above my knee. And he says just wait here and we’ll go get a boat.  And I told him the water is coming in the house now… it’s coming in deeper. When it got to my waist, I said I’m coming out.”

Ordiway lost both her house and her car in Hurricane Florence.  She heard about the support group from a friend.

“It was God’s way of telling me I need to express and help other people because I don’t have anything, but I can help someway,”Oridway said.  “It’s hard after you’ve completed three quarters of your life and all of a sudden you have to start all over again, but I can do it.  I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again, with God’s help.”

The organizers of the Coping With Life After Florence Support Group will hold a seminar on recovering from Hurricane Florence on Saturday, December 1st. 

People who are experiencing emotional and psychological distress from the storm can call or text the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s 24-hour helpline to receive counseling and support.

To help support people who were affected by Hurricane Florence, the State Department of Health and Human Services secured more than $8.5 million in state and federal funding for a Crisis Counseling Program that will help connect individuals and families with behavioral health services in their communities. $5 million of the new funding will help the estimated 275,000 people living in disaster affected counties who are uninsured.