Coping after a Disaster

By Aesha Duval

Be prepared. Stay informed. Be vigilant. Those are the three main actions emergency response experts urge you to take when preparing for a disaster. But what about after a disaster strikes? After the flood waters have receded, the hurricane winds have stilled or the earth stops shaking, how do you cope with the aftermath?

a street in Frederiksted, St. Croix just hours after Hurricane Maria, Sept. 20, 2017
Street in Frederiksted, St. Croix just hours after Hurricane Maria, Sept. 20, 2017. Taken by the author.

I’ve experienced more than a few hurricanes living in the U.S. Virgin Islands. But by far, the worst were the two Category 5 hurricanes – Irma and Maria – that hit the U.S. territory within two weeks of each other in September 2017. The storms destroyed homes and businesses and left island residents without electricity for several months. I survived hurricanes as a child, but this was my first time experiencing a disaster of this magnitude as an adult. And let me tell you, it was awful. Before, during and after. Fortunately, I didn’t lose my roof and my home had only minor damage from the storms. Many people were not so lucky. The stress over having no electricity, barely-there cell and internet service, and the daily battle of getting gasoline (to fuel the generator my awesome brother shipped to me), water and food was overwhelming. It’s been four years since the storms, and I still have trouble sleeping. Virgin Islanders will tell you, none of us are “okay.”

Disasters are upsetting for everyone and the emotional toll that a disaster brings can sometimes be even more devastating than the financial strains of damage to a home, business, or personal property.

Everyone who sees or experiences a disaster or traumatic event is affected by it in some way. It is important to take care of your emotional health after a disaster. Doing so will help you think clearly and be able to react to urgent needs to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Common Signs of Distress

According to the Centers for Disease Control, some of the common signs of distress are:

  • Feelings of shock, numbness, or disbelief
  • Change in energy or activity levels
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in appetite
  • Sleeping problems or nightmares
  • Feelings anxious, fearful, or angry
  • Headaches, body pain, or skin rashes
  • Chronic health problems get worse
  • Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs

Children and older adults should be of special concern in the aftermath of a disaster. Many older adults in the Virgin Islands passed away in the months after the hurricanes. My own parents aged and started looking more run down. When I finally got electricity restored and got a good look at myself in a mirror with lights on, I didn’t recognize my face. It’s hard to describe, but I just didn’t look like myself.

Even people watching extensive media coverage of a disaster can be affected. Some of us know this firsthand after so many months of the pandemic media coverage.

Tips for Helping Children Cope

First, talk to them. Hug them and reassure them that everything is going to be okay, answer any questions they may have and address rumors. Only share age-appropriate information with them, and limit television and social media exposure of disaster media coverage. And set a good example by taking care of yourself.

When I think back to the aftermath of hurricanes I experienced as a child, I remember the fun stuff — playing games with my siblings and neighbors who sheltered in our house. I remember not having to go to school for a while. But I have no memories of my parents being stressed over feeding us or not having electricity for months. I’m quite sure that they did.

Take Care of Yourself

Over time, as you get back to a sense of normalcy, you should still take care of yourself. As Caribbean people, one of things we do to cope is talk about our experience. Everyone has a hurricane story! Talking about it and sharing your feelings with friends or relatives allows you to connect and maintain relationships.

Make sure you eat healthy, get lots of sleep and exercise, and avoid drinking alcohol and taking drugs. Take breaks or make time to unwind and resume activities you take pleasure in and enjoy. Stay informed with news updates from reliable news sources. And if you or someone in your family is experiencing issues with disaster related stress, talk to a clergy member, doctor, or counselor. Ask for help.

We may not be “okay” just yet, but we are a resilient people, and we can and will get through it if we keep looking out for each other.

For more information on coping after a disaster, visit


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. Their essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.