Hurricane Trauma Is Real


A FEMA worker approaching a Hurricane María-ravaged house
in Puerto Rico in 2017. /
FEMA

As Hurricane Dorian draws nearer to Florida, memes have popped up on the internet poking fun at the potential catastrophe. This is how we Floridians relieve the considerable stress of knowing that we may be sitting in the path of nature’s wrath, and there’s only so much we can do about it.

A Spanish-language meme warns Dorian not
to come to Florida, home to flu, zika,
dengue, high rents and no jobs.

Laughter is a necessary corollary to stress. While we are laughing at ourselves, it’s important to remember that hurricane trauma is real. And those who have experienced more than a Category 3 hurricane understand that an instant of huffing and puffing can blow all away, including health and self confidence.

In many of the interviews conducted for my upcoming book, Tossed to the Wind: Stories of Hurricane Maria Survivors with Nancy Rosado (University of Florida Press), nearly all talked about the long, angry growl of the wind – how it was loud, how it would never end. Some imitated the sound: woooooooooooo! saying it made their skin crawl. They covered their ears. The baying of the winds of María is a sound they will never forget, they said.

Hurricane María was a Category 5 when it hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, the highest and most destructive category defined by the National Hurricane Center. As it landed, the tempest downgraded to a Category 4, still a very strong storm with a powerful force, as we all witnessed. More than 3,000 deaths were reported.

Dorian is now a Category 5 with 180 mile-per-hour winds as it moves over the Bahamas. I shudder to picture what the islands will look like when Dorian is finished doing an imitation of a Jackson Pollock masterpiece.

Shudder is what a lot of people traumatized by a hurricane or disaster do when confronted with the possibility of yet another storm, and it’s no joke.

A JAMA Network Open study published this year found that “7.2 percent of [Puerto Rico] public school students reported ‘clinically significant’ symptoms of PTSD. More girls tended to show signs of PTSD than boys.”

For the study, researchers surveyed 96,108 students five to nine months after the 2017 hurricane. Many of the students reported that their homes were considerably damaged, they experienced shortages of food and water, and the loss of family and friends – the sort of stuff that sticks to your psyche. JAMA is the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“It didn’t matter what your income was or your location was on the island — you were affected,” said author Rosaura Orengo-Aguayo, a clinical psychologist at the Medical University of South Carolina, in a story about the research published in Kaiser Health News.

Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans migrated to Florida, particularly Central Florida, post Hurricane María. Thousands more who already resided in Florida exhibited signs of stress as they tried to reach or help relatives.

Michael, Katrina and Andrew are our closest hurricane cousins on this side of the Atlantic. In talking to an elderly woman who survived Andrew, which struck Homestead, Florida, as a Category 5 in 1992, she remembered the “embarrassment and humiliation” of evacuating her home in a bata or housecoat. “Sin brasier ni nada,” or without a bra or anything. Andrew damaged her dignity.

In 2005 Katrina, also a Category 5, swamped New Orleans, resulting in significant loss of life (more than 1,800 deaths) and damage to property. A study of nearly 400 low-income African-American parents published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry in 2010 found “the prevalence of probable serious mental illness doubled, and nearly half of the respondents exhibited probable PTSD. Higher levels of hurricane-related loss and stressors were generally associated with worse health outcomes.” Health conditions included depression, anxiety, substance abuse and physical illness, among others.

There are plenty of other studies supporting the theory of disaster as traumatizing. The folks who have experienced disaster trauma are not “snowflakes,” as some critics would have you believe. Hurricane trauma is real.

As Orlando community activist Samí Haiman-Marrero points out on Facebook, in response to ugly comments on her subdivision’s community page about people hoarding groceries:

“There are a lot of Puerto Ricans who were displaced … here in Central Florida. These could be signs of PTSD. Just try to be mindful.”

María Padilla, Editor

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