Disaster & child health in the wake of Hurricane Florence

Hurricane Florence hit the shores of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia a little less than two weeks ago. While the storm has passed, the damages are daunting. Recovery from the disaster will take immense efforts in certain areas, given some homes and businesses experienced massive flooding. But the hurricane didn’t just impact  physical infrastructure—amidst recovery conversations, it’s important to bear in mind the toll natural disaster takes on mental health and emotional well-being as well.

In a recent Atlantic interview, Shannon Self-Brown, the chair of health policy and behavioral science at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health, explained children are particularly at risk of developing lasting emotional trauma from natural disasters because they might not be old enough to understand why the event happened specifically to them. Studying the impacts of Hurricane Katrina, She and her colleagues found that 71% of the 426 children were resilient, showing no signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) like hyperarousal or reexperiencing the event in their heads. 25% of kids showed temporary signs of PTSD, meaning the symptoms went away within 2 years, and the remaining 4% of kids studied had signs of chronic PTSD. Unsurprisingly, increased exposure to the hurricane correlated with worse PTSD outcomes. Good social support, on the other hand, correlated with more resiliency.

But establishing good social support—meaning an active and strong peer group—after a natural disaster can prove challenging for families that have been displaced. Often, by encouraging experience-sharing and establishing routines, this is where educators can play a role, even for children who have had to change schools.

In applying other aspects of her research to the present aftermath of Hurricane Florence, Self-Brown recommended opening up a dialogue with kids about the disaster and what happened. This can be done in a number of ways, like coming up with a song, drawing a picture, writing a story, or having a simple conversation. If behavioral changes are occurring in children under the age of 4, Self-Brown notes caretakers should self-evaluate for stress of their own. Toddlers repeatedly acting up can be an indication they sense Mom isn’t doing okay.

The stress of dealing with an unexpected disaster cannot be overstated. Family upheaval affects even the youngest family members, who don’t necessarily understand the nitty gritty of, say, insurance coverage. Other resources for coping with hurricane recovery can be found on the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s website, and more general information is posted on affected states’ department of human and health services websites.