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What to Do Immediately Following a DisasterGeneral Public Image

The time immediately following a disaster, whether human-caused or natural, is critical to mental health. This is a time and space in which our preparedness can pay off, in reducing paralyzing anxiety, uncertainty, and isolation. This is a time when we are faced with what is sometimes impossible to “fix,” and so it is important to do what we can, to remind ourselves that we have some control and responsibility, and to stay focused on meaningful work and activity. There will be time for analysis (“Why did this happen to me?”) and sense-making later: now is the time because we can’t do everything, to do what we can. Here are some helpful suggestions adapted from the American Red Cross website:

  • Check the area around you for safety. In the case of hurricanes or tornados or of biological, chemical or radiological threats, listen for instructions on local radio or television stations about safe places to go. Georgia911.org maintains information on state disaster status and you can find local weather alerts and warnings.
  • Do what you can to treat your injuries and those of others. Wash small wounds with soap and water. To help prevent infection of small wounds, use bandages and replace them if they become soiled, damaged or waterlogged. There is some helpful information on family first-aid after a disaster at disasterfirstaid.com.
  • Seek appropriate medical care for more severe injuries, to the extent that you can. Access to medical professionals is often affected by disasters, but relief agencies such as the Red Cross have authorized providers to furnish care during and after disasters.
  • Be prepared for some “ripples” of disasters, in that some natural hazards, like severe storms or earthquakes, may recur in the form of new storms or aftershocks over the next several days. Part of your mental health preparedness should involve acquainting yourself with common or possible disasters in the Georgia area and knowing the different consequences of each.
  • Avoid using the telephone (either cellular or landlines) if a large number of homes in your area have been affected by a disaster. Emergency responders need to have the telephone lines available to coordinate their response. During the immediate post-disaster time period, only use the telephone to report life-threatening conditions and call your out-of-town emergency contact.
  • You can text DRC and a zip code to 43362 (4FEMA) to locate a Disaster Recovery Center in your area.
  • Remain calm. Pace yourself. You may find yourself in the position of taking charge of other people. Listen carefully to what people are telling you, and deal patiently with urgent situations first. This is a time for focusing on the large questions (how to secure food, clothing, and shelter) but also doing what you can to be patient and trusting. People of faith may find it helpful to pray or meditate but stress management of whatever form is important.
  • If the disaster was widespread, listen to your radio or television station for instructions from local authorities. Information may change rapidly after a widespread disaster, so continue to listen regularly for updates. If the power is still out, listen to a battery-powered radio, television or car radio. Research shows that mental health during disasters is enhanced by the experience of connection and control, and diminished by isolation and retreat. Try to stay connected with others by whatever means possible. Even if you do not need to go to a shelter it is helpful to remain in contact with and to be around others.
  • Six Phases of a Disaster

    i. Pre-disaster phase:

    1. Disasters with no warning can cause feelings of vulnerability and lack of security, fear of the future or fear of unpredicted tragedies, and a sense of loss of control or inability to protect oneself and family.

    2. Disasters with warning can cause guilt or self-blame for failure to heed warnings.

    ii. Impact phase:

    1. Impact reactions can range from shock to overt panic.

    2. Slow, low-threat disasters and rapid, dangerous disasters have different psychological impacts.

    3. Great destruction and loss leads to psychosocial effects.

    4. Initial confusion and disbelief are followed by focus on self-preservation and family protection.

    5. Family separation during impact causes considerable anxiety.

    iii. Heroic phase:

    1. Many exhibit adrenaline-induced rescue behavior and have high activity with low productivity.

    2. Risk assessment may be impaired, and there is a sense of altruism.

    3. Evacuation and relocation have psychological significance: impact of physical hazards and impact of family separation.

    iv. Honeymoon phase:

    1. Disaster assistance is readily available. Community bonding occurs. Optimism exists that everything will return to normal quickly.

    2. Opportunities are available for a crisis team to gain entrée to impacted people and build relationships.

    v. Disillusionment phase:

    1. Physical exhaustion may surface, and optimism turns into discouragement.

    2. Increased need for substance abuse services may begin to surface.

    3. Reality of losses sets in. Diminishing assistance leads to feelings of abandonment. Stress and fatigue take a toll. The larger community returns to business as usual.

    4. The crisis team may have increased demand for services, as individuals and communities begin to assume responsibility for rebuilding their lives.

    5. People adjust to a new “normal,” while continuing to grieve losses. There is recognition of growth and opportunity.

    vi. Reconstruction phase:

    1. The reconstruction process may continue for years. Individuals and communities begin to assume responsibility for rebuilding their lives.

    2. People adjust to a new "normal," while continuing to grieve losses. There is recognition of growth and opportunity.

Additional Resources

FEMA Evacuee Hotels List By State

The National Center for PTSD

Georgia’s Disaster & Emergency Website. If computer access is possible during a disaster, this should be the first place to go.

The Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA).

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) offers this website for emergency preparedness.

FEMA Disaster Recovery Center locator

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers disaster-related information for individuals here.

Ready.gov provides this section of their website to help individual Americans “prepare, plan, and stay informed.”

The American Red Cross offers this site to help you prepare before and get assistance after a disaster.

The American Psychological Association (APA) offers tips for managing traumatic stress in recovering from disasters and other traumatic events.

This Department of Veterans Affairs website details the phases of traumatic stress during and after a disaster as described by the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Trauma and Disaster Mental Health Site with many resources from the American Counseling Association