What to Do Immediately Following a Disaster
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.
- 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.