It's normal to feel hopeless when faced with a mass tragedy. Watching the things you’ve loved, known, and enjoyed crumble in one fragile moment is heart wrenching.
Perhaps the loss is a home, a relative, a friend, a job, or even a fulfilling lifestyle. It may take a long time to make sense of a new way of living.
The recovery phase after disasters is extremely complex and diverse. Giving accurate advice on such a subject would require an analysis of the situation because many things would need to be considered and the effects and resources vary drastically from case to case. All disasters are unique in the same way that all families are unique.
For those reasons, we can only offer you helpful resources but it should not be taken as professional advice. FEMA has a guide on recovering from disasters where you can find valuable information as well. Find that resource here.
Post-disaster safety tips
Your safety is always a priority, but even more so after a disaster.
Immediate response and assisting others
- The moment a disaster occurs, check for injured people. Assisting them may be tricky. If you're trained in medical response, you should have a grasp on what to do or what not to do with an injured patient. If you have no medical training whatsoever, it’s best for you to stay with the patient and call or text for help. Another way you can help is by checking on your neighbors if you’re home.
- Practice extreme caution. Note that some roads may be impassable due to flooding, mud, debris, downed power lines, etc so travel with care. Do not go near any downed wires or floodwaters. Do not enter a building that appears to have sustained damage.
- Notify authorities if you see any downed wires or other threats to life and property.
- In each of the disaster guides, you will find safety tips to help you immediately after any major disaster event, such as a flood, earthquake, hurricane, or wildfire. Refer to the disaster risk section for more information.
- If your home has sustained damage, exit the property until it has been inspected by a professional and is deemed safe to re-enter. Consider the possibility of broken sewage lines, a flooded basement, cracks in the chimney or the foundation of your home, dead animals, and other threats. Do not turn or switch on any utilities until the utility companies have come by and given you the all-clear.
- Do not attempt to move, rearrange, or fix anything in your home or workplace that has endured damage. The insurance company may need to do a walk-through and inspect those damages first.
- Always wear the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE’s) during the clean-up phase. Also, wash your hands if you touched debris or flood water as it may have come into contact with contaminants.
- During the clean-up process, keep detailed record of the repair and cleaning costs to hand over to your insurance company.
Emotionally recovering from disasters
Natural disasters undeniably cause stress and trauma in the lives of those that are affected. Since grief is unique to each individual, working through the pain differs from person to person. These are some ways to help you cope and heal from a traumatic event.
Know the signs that accompany loss
- Denial, including: disbelief, shock, lack of emotion, detachment, withdrawn, apathy, numbness, isolation, fear, and anxiety about the future.
- Anger, including: resentment, rage, envy, guilt, regret, shame, blame, and irritability toward others and the situation itself.
- Sadness, including: depression, mood swings, feeling hopeless, helpless, disappointed, powerless, struggling to make decisions, and experiencing random bursts of crying.
- Physical effects in the body, including: changes in sleeping and eating patterns, lethargy, muscle aches, chest pains, stomach problems, headaches, and excessive drinking or drug use.
If you recognize any of those emotions becoming the new norm in either yourself or a loved one, get help from a professional therapist or call the Disaster Distress Help Line (their contact information is provided below).
Tips for emotional recovery
- Hold on to hope. Although you may not understand it yet, there’s a reason you’re a survivor. You have great potential and purpose in this world, and even if you don’t see it right in this moment, hold on to the hope that you will see better days.
- Open up your heart to someone you trust. It’s powerful to release your emotions and not hold them in. Talking things out helps to relieve stress so that it doesn’t build up inside of you and cause your physical well-being to deteriorate. Express your needs clearly so that your loved ones can meet you where you’re at emotionally. Encourage your children to open up as well, in their time. If you don’t feel ready to talk, write your feelings in a journal.
- Join a support group. Knowing that you’re not alone in the midst of your struggle increases feelings of comfort and peace. Meeting with a support group or therapist is beneficial for many people throughout their process of healing.
- Allow yourself to fully experience the emotions you’re feeling. It’s okay to be sad, to cry, to feel angry, and to not understand. Shutting off your emotions does not help you overcome them. Work through them as they come. Know that the feelings you’re experiencing are common but they shouldn’t last forever.
- Speak positivity over your life. There’s power in positive and encouraging words. Repeat them out loud until you start to believe them.
- Allow yourself time to heal. There’s a process in healing that will take time. Gradually work your way back into your daily routine, but don’t not rush into anything too fast.
- Return to a healthy routine. When I say healthy, I mean eating the right foods, drinking plenty of water, getting enough hours of sleep, exercising regularly, and getting a daily dose of laughter. Your mind and body work together during the recovery process and neither one should get neglected. Do things you truly enjoy with people you love.
- Spend time helping others. One of the best ways to overcome grief is to change your mental focus onto someone or something else. Help others and you will feel a new sense of purpose in life. If you don’t want to be around people, you could volunteer some hours at the local pet shelter.
- Don’t cope with alcohol or drugs. When people are deeply hurt, they use drugs and alcohol to numb their pain, but it will only lead you down a destructive path. See your pain as an opportunity to come out on the other side as a whole, new, and healthy person.
- Spend time meditating outdoors. The Earth is a mass of energy. When we walk barefoot on grass, sand, or any other conductive system, the energy of the Earth gets transferred into our body. This helps reduce inflammation and improves sleep, among other things. Spend at least 30 minutes daily in quiet meditation while touching the Earth’s surface.
Helping your children cope during their healing process
It's important for parents to take notice of behavioral changes in their children after a traumatic event. Oftentimes, kids will not know how to express their emotions and will subconsciously internalize their feelings.
- Communicate. Maintain an open dialogue with your kids to make sure they feel the freedom to express themselves. Acknowledge your kid's feelings and thoughts, assuring them that what they're experiencing is valid. Assure them that situations like these are not in their control. Encourage your kids to talk to a trusted relative, friend, pastor or therapist.
- Incorporate art for healing. Some children find it difficult to open up verbally and that's okay. Find different forms of non-verbal communication by which they can learn to express themselves. Encourage them to write in a diary, relive stress by playing an instrument, or creating pieces of art.
- Reduce the amount of time your kids spend on their phone, watching TV or playing video games. Many kids have their own mobile phones or at least access to them. Naturally, they may turn to their friends online, but that's not always the healthiest approach. Reduce social media use and encourage them to join a sport or get involved in a charitable project. Allow them to be exposed to a new environment so they don't continue to stumble upon images or videos of the traumatizing event while they're learning to cope with it.
- Be vulnerable and honest. Don't minimize the severity of the problem, but help your children see that in time it will get resolved. By being honest, you are reinforcing the ability for them to know they can trust you in the future. If they're feeling overwhelmed by the situation, explain how you are coping with it so they feel secure. Kids observe everything their parents do, so showing them your ability to cope in a healthy manner may teach them to do the same.
- Get their minds away from the situation. Help your kids remove the focus off of themselves by volunteering to help others or traveling somewhere to get their minds off of the matter. Meditating together is also beneficial.
- Normalize. Return to your normal routines when you're able to. Try to minimize the conversations you have about the disaster (or traumatizing event) with other adults while your children are present. If a child misunderstands what you're saying, they may develop fears and deeper roots to their anxiety. If you notice your children are experiencing signs of PTSD, have them see a professional.
Getting assistance after disasters
Whether you’re coping with the destruction of your property, the loss of your job as a result of the disaster, or you’re emotionally overwhelmed, there are many organizations that are available to help.
- The Disaster Distress Help Line
“The Disaster Distress Helpline is a 24/7, 365-day-a-year, national hotline dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster. This toll-free, multilingual, and confidential crisis support service is available to all residents in the United States and its territories. Stress, anxiety, and other depression-like symptoms are common reactions after a disaster. Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.”
- Individual disaster assistance through FEMA (Federal Aid)
If individual assistance is available, FEMA may be able to help you with rental assistance, lodging expense reimbursement, home repair, home replacement, direct housing, and other miscellaneous expenses. Click here for more information. You can also call 1-800-621-3362 (TTY number is 1-800-462-7585) or do a Google search for: Apply for Disaster Assistance FEMA.
- Your state’s Emergency Management Assistance Office
If you live in the United States, do a simple Google search for your state’s emergency management assistance office. Every state’s emergency organization may have a different name, but their website url’s will always end in .gov. State assistance might be available for individual property and small businesses.
The Disaster Assistance’s website allows you to find assistance, apply for it online, and check on the status of your applications. Simply go to their website, enter your city and state or zip code and see what options are available to you.
This website offers a list of government organizations that offer benefits after disasters. Click here and enter your state to find state and federal benefits that may be available to you.
- Disaster financial assistance
The USA.gov website offers information on current disasters and how to obtain emergency financial assistance, such as stimulus checks or help with food, housing, and other bills. Click here to see what they have to offer.
Depending on the severity of a disaster, there may be a lot of help readily available, or there may not. You can look to the following organizations which generally offer help and assistance to the public.
- Insurance companies
Call your insurance company right after the disaster occurs and follow their guidance to receive the maximum benefits.
- Disaster relief agencies and community-based NGO's
The American Red Cross and the Salvation Army usually assist in the very early stages of a disaster. Typically their help comes in the form of evacuation centers and the distribution of food, clothing, and hygiene items.
Other organizations, like Samaritan’s Purse, Crisis Response International, and Team Rubicon, stay long after the initial shock of a disaster has passed. They typically offer help in clean-up and rebuilding. Faith-based organizations also offer chaplaincy services to help you heal emotionally.
- Local churches
Get in touch with the local churches to see which programs or assistance they may be offering to your community.
- Local food pantries
Most food pantries offer services year-round but perhaps they have additional supplies or assistance available after a disaster.