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NASP Communiqué, Vol. 33, #5
February 2005

Hurricane Experiences Provide Lessons for the Future

By Frank Zenere

Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne had their "eye" on Florida during August and September 2004. Unfortunately, I am not referring to tourists visiting the sunshine state, but to tropical cyclones-hurricanes. Over a period of six weeks, these ocean-born ambassadors of nature swept over the peninsula of Florida, leaving a wide swath of destruction in their path. Over 3,000 people perished in the storms, mostly in Haiti, while 117 individuals died in Florida. Property damage attributed to these collective disasters is estimated at $42 billion dollars in Florida alone, while 65,000 homes were destroyed, and 41,000 families were left homeless (Buckley, 2004).  The vast psychological and emotional toll can not yet be determined.

A single natural disaster striking a particular region has the potential to cause significant damage, lead to widespread disruption and displacement, and heighten the level of human misery. The cumulative impact of four disasters occurring in geographical and chronological proximity dramatically exacerbates the aforementioned conditions and severely strains intervention resources. School communities across Florida experienced significant disruption of basic needs and services including loss of shelter, electricity and potable water.  School districts were also heavily impacted by the storms. Several schools were rendered uninhabitable, while many campuses suffered significant damage.  Students in Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties missed 19 days of school due to the destruction. Florida's state university system was impacted to the tune of $50 million in damages and costs with a cumulative campus closure of 77.5 days (Florida Department of Education, 2004).

As is most often the case, moments of challenge may offer opportunities for growth and progress. In this spirit, I will use this article to examine lessons confirmed and lessons learned, as well as their applicability for preparing and responding to future disasters impacting school communities.


At last check, there is no known region of the United States that is immune to the occurrence of natural disaster. Therefore, it is strategically wise to educate youth with a sense of awareness regarding these potential threats.  A seasonal or pre-event preparatory activity, as suggested by La Greca, Vernberg, Silverman, Vogel, and Prinstein (1994), or a comprehensive curriculum approach such as Masters of Disaster (American National Red Cross, 2000) offer methods to increase student knowledge regarding relevant disasters, while providing important information about enhancing personal safety. These efforts often reduce anticipatory anxiety and increase a child's sense of control. 

School districts can bolster their readiness for disaster response and recovery by assuring that crisis management policy, procedures and training activities reflect the environmental challenges common to their communities. Such actions should include the development of inter-agency and inter-district collaborative agreements that foster sharing of human and material resources during periods of acute need.  Further, equipping school mental health professionals with the skills to offer guidance during the post-disaster response and recovery period is paramount.              

Response and Recovery

As discussed earlier, hurricane impact frequently leads to an elongated period of school closure.  This time frame can and has been utilized efficiently, to prepare for the reopening of schools.  For example, following Hurricane Ivan, staff from the Florida School District of Escambia County (Reed & Smith, 2004) developed a K-12 curriculum insert that was delivered to each student household as part of the Pensacola News Journal.  The school district directly mailed the insert to families that did not normally receive the daily newspaper. Incorporated in this document were age-appropriate educational activities, along with directions for parents to assist their child. This effort provided youth with structured learning experiences during the school closure period.  Other Florida school districts used direct training (Hardee County), training of trainers (Charlotte, Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties), and video education (Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie and Santa Rosa Counties)  to prepare instructional personnel for addressing the emotional and learning needs of students.

The importance of bringing school mental health and instructional staff back to school well in advance of students can not be overstated.  These caregivers need the opportunity to share and sort through their own disaster related experiences prior to addressing the needs of students. Further, instructional personnel can be charged with the responsibility of determining the current status of their students. Key information regarding damage to homes, potential relocation, loss or injury of family members and/or pets, and food, clothing and school supply needs, is vital in supporting a child's successful transition back to school.

School facilities are often designated as disaster evacuation shelter sites.  These venues provide residence for many who have lost their homes as a result of disaster, and also provide an opportunity for school officials to assess family and child needs.  Likewise, Disaster Recovery Centers (DRC) operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), are set up in heavily impacted communities to support the reestablishment of basic needs and infrastructure.  It is recommended that school district officials, including mental health professionals, be present in all DRC's to disseminate information and provide guidance for parents seeking support for their children. 

Communities ravaged by natural disaster can expect to be challenged by a series of cascading events and emerging issues of concern.  Increasing levels of domestic violence, child abuse, alcohol and other drug abuse, health complaints, suicide, divorce and separation, and employee and student absenteeism have been observed during the post-disaster period. These realities can be significantly mitigated through timely identification, assessment, connection to support/help resources and appropriate follow up.  The judicious use of public service announcements can also offer outreach guidance for parents seeking to establish a mentally healthy recovery environment for their children.

School Reentry

With the exception of the resumption of basic services (e.g., water and electricity) and the provision of basic needs (e.g., food and shelter), no other occurrence better represents the initial phase of a community's post-disaster recovery than the reopening of schools.  The closing of school triggers a disruption in the continuity of a child's life (Lahad, 2004), which may lead to emotional and behavioral destabilization. In contrast, the return to school can provide a child with the healing environment of routine and structure, concrete expectations and predictability, and peer camaraderie and support; all of which are essential elements for reestablishing a sense of safety and security, and set the foundation for academic achievement.


Although the vast majority of students returning to school following a hurricane will be impacted by their disaster experience, very few will actually be traumatized. Post-disaster reactions can be best characterized by widespread distress, moderate behavioral changes and minimal occurrences of psychopathology.  Numerous factors may influence a child's reaction(s) to storm exposure, including nature of warning, speed of onset, proximity, perceived level of threat, fear of loss of life, exposure to death and destruction, duration and sensorial perceptions (National Organization for Victim Assistance, 2002).

Children most at risk for the development of post-disaster emotional difficulties that impact functioning are those who feel that their lives, or the lives of loved ones, are in jeopardy during the storm. Experiences marked by feelings of terror and helplessness are also highly correlated with post traumatic stress reactions.  Following Hurricane Andrew, some Miami-Dade County Public School students demonstrated severe behavioral reactions to the presence of typical afternoon thunderstorms, including taking cover under desks, screaming hysterically, crying, or visibly shaking.  These responses were attributed to the sensorial experiences connected to in the original disaster that were triggered by the secondary event. Children who may have had previous exposure to, and unresolved issues surrounding, trauma situations, including disasters, as well as youth with pre-existing psychopathology, also demonstrate an elevated risk for post-disaster difficulties.  Additional factors predictive of long-term emotional impact include children who were very upset during and after the disaster; those who lost their home or possessions; those who had to relocate to new homes and/or schools; and those children who attended schools that were forced to move to double sessions or make significant schedule adjustments (La Greca, et al., 1994).

Developmental Issues

Teachers and parents should be prepared to confront numerous emotional and behavioral issues that may influence a student's ability to cope with their disaster experience and could also impact school performance.  Children of elementary school age may exhibit a spectrum of post disaster reactions including a wide array of fears, regressive behavior, behavioral difficulties, depressive symptoms and school difficulties (La Greca, et al., 1994).  Following a lengthy period of school closure, young children may re-experience separation anxiety issues when leaving their parents, often out of concern of potential harm occurring to a family member in their absence. Other concerns include fear of the dark, especially if the storm occurred during evening hours; and for some very young children, a fear that they may have caused the disaster.  The aforementioned reaction is consistent with the developmental characteristics of magical thinking and egocentric perspective, commonplace among pre-kindergarten to early elementary age children.

A child's ability to concentrate and focus sustained attention on a task may be especially compromised.  The disaster experience along with a multitude of environmental disruptions may also influence the development of hyperactive and/or general acting out behavior, nightmares and other sleep disturbances, which in turn may lead to a decline in academic success (La Greca, et al., 1994). Similarly, adolescents may demonstrate in-kind reactions consistent with their elementary age counterparts. Additionally, teenagers are increasingly likely to elicit risk behaviors, including drug use, sexual acting out, dropping out of school, and antisocial and/or suicidal behavior, in response to their disaster-related exposure (Zenere and Lazarus, 1999).

Attention must also be directed to the multiplicity of losses that accompany disaster. The death of a loved one or pet, destruction of one's home, missing material possessions or relocation to a new school all represent tangible losses that impact recovery.  Moreover, intangible factors including a decline in a child's sense of safety and security, and eroding trust in parents/adults as protective agents, further lead to an increase in emotional distress.

Supporting Recovery

School mental health professionals can perform a variety of functions that support student adjustment and resiliency following a disaster experience.  Serving as consultants, advocates, trainers and interventionists, they possess the skills that help to provide the foundation for recovery. The extension of support services is highly dependent upon the receptivity of school leadership.  Once an invitation is extended, the mental health professional is in position to advocate for "best practice" approaches for addressing the educational, social and emotional needs of children, families, and school personnel impacted by the disaster.

School leadership should be strongly encouraged to make necessary adjustments to campus and classroom operational protocol in the aftermath of disaster. Following Hurricane Charlie, Dennis Jones, Superintendent of Hardee County School District in Wauchula, Florida, addressed his entire instructional staff of nearly 800, several days prior to the reopening of schools. Excerpts of his heartfelt message were captured in the following account:

Until further notice, I am instituting the following measures. No homework will be given, for many of our students have no home in which to complete it. Attendance will be taken, but all absences and late arrivals will be excused.  Cafeteria lunches will be free of charge for students and employees.  There will be no fundraising activities, since our community has been financially depleted. Lastly, I want each of you to focus on the social and emotional healing of our students at this critical time, not on preparing for high stakes testing.

School mental health professionals should encourage teachers to maintain the routine and structure familiar to students prior to the disaster.  However, efforts should be taken to alter workload expectations and avoid the introduction of new material during the transitional school reentry period. The following recommendations are provided for teachers to assist students in making a successful return to school in the aftermath of disaster:

  • Meet and greet students as they enter the classroom.
  • Remain calm and reassuring.
  • Acknowledge and normalize feelings/reactions.
  • Provide opportunities for children to share their concerns.
  • Promote and praise positive coping and problem solving skills.
  • Involve children in activities that permit them to make choices and re-establish some control over their environment.
  • Involve students in recovery-oriented activities and projects.
  • Consider the developmental stage and experiences of each child.
  • Incorporate disaster-related information into the curriculum.
  • Provide collaborative activities that strengthen student's friendships and support (Lazarus, Jimerson & Brock, 2003; Brock, Lazarus & Jimerson, 2002; La Greca, et al., 1994).

The judicious use of Psychological First Aid (PFA) (Raphael, 1977, 1986, cited in Litz & Gray, 2004) can be a helpful tool for the school mental health practitioner. PFA can be utilized to respond to the acute desire to share one's disaster experiences (Litz et al. 2004); provide information regarding future expectations (U.S. Consensus Workshop on Mass Violence and Early Intervention, 2001, cited in Litz et al., 2004); provide information about risk indicators for the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Litz et al., 2004); and examine what symptoms/behaviors should signal help seeking.  When employed appropriately, PFA may accomplish the following objectives:

  • Provide a sense of comfort, calm, reassurance and support
  • Provide an accurate account of the individual's experience
  • Respect individuals that decline the opportunity to discuss their experience
  • Promote acceptance and validation of reactions and feelings
  • Emphasize the importance of social support connections
  • Enhance problem solving ability
  • Address fears and anxieties
  • Reduce stigma and shame
  • Disseminate information important to the recovery process
  • Emphasize that help is available (Litz, et al., 2004)

Responding to the array of emerging student symptoms and behaviors will challenge school personnel during the post disaster period.  School mental health professionals can assist teachers in providing timely information and guidance for addressing anticipated features, including psychosomatic complaints, aggressive or acting out behaviors, and despondency over disaster- related losses.  Bereavement groups can be established in schools to provide grieving students the opportunity to process the multiplicity of losses that are common outcomes of natural disaster.  The presence of complicated grief, PTSD, or depressive/suicidal behaviors, should result in immediate parent/guardian contact and referral to appropriate community-based mental health resources.

Diversity Issues

Natural disasters tend to be equal opportunity occurrences, randomly impacting expansive geographic areas.  Nature has no regard for one's country of origin, religion or socioeconomic status.  Therefore, it is essential that intervention efforts are sensitive to the cultural, religious and linguistic realities of the population served. Whenever possible, disaster mental health support services should be delivered by professionals that reflect the diverse characteristics shared by a community. Consideration should be given to language and ethnic barriers that may impede the acceptance and benefit of needed services.  Other factors germane to the provision of appropriate support services include race, age, gender, refugee/immigrant status, income, and size of the community (i.e., urban, suburban or rural) (Silva, 2004).

When operating from a diversity deficit, the school mental health professional needs to educate himself/herself to the relevant background of individuals, groups, or communities he/she is asked to serve.  For example, the author, when asked to train members of the Turkish Psychological Association following a devastating 1999 earthquake, needed to gain a better understanding of the Islamic faith system in order to have a contextual appreciation of their reactions to, and perceptions of, the disaster.  Culture and trauma experiences may also contribute to the interpretation or definition of what is considered traumatic, as well as how receptive one is to intervention efforts. For example, the author recalls that following Hurricane Andrew, some Miami- Dade County Public Schools students blamed God for the disaster; while many Turkish school children saw the earthquake as an act of Allah, not to be questioned or angered by. Also, many members of Miami's Haitian community viewed military assisting with Hurricane Andrew recovery efforts with apprehension and fear, rather than as agents of support. These reactions are understandable when viewed in the context of the numerous atrocities committed by the Haitian military upon its people.

Special Features

The hurricane season of 2004 will long be remembered for the repetitive and focused assault on the State of Florida.  Living in an environment of continual alert and potential threat comes at a great cost to residents.  The cumulative impact of several major disasters threatening and/or striking a given community within a condensed time frame, leads to mounting stress and emotional fatigue among children and adults alike.  The unrelenting nature of these occurrences provides one little or no opportunity to cope with one challenge before being confronted with another.

Key to maintaining a sense of emotional balance in the presence of continual threat is the ability to tap into effective coping resources. The BASIC Ph Coping Model developed by Dr. Mooli Lahad (cited in Zenere, 2004), Director of the Community Stress Prevention Center in Qiryat Shmona, Israel, may be a helpful tool in this process.  The model is based upon the pretense that individuals possess six characteristics or dimensions that represent one's potential coping channels.  The six areas include; Belief (B), Affect (A), Social (S), Imagination (I), Cognitive (C) and Physiological (Ph). Each dimension holds opportunities for children and adults to gain comfort, insight and resiliency along the pathway toward healing.  For a detailed description of the BASIC Ph Model, please read "How Children Cope with Trauma and Ongoing Threat: The BASIC Ph Model" (www.nasponline.org/resources/crisis_safety/ongoingthreat.aspx).

Well known is the fact that adult behavior shapes child behavior. Therefore, the modeling of appropriate coping behavior's by the adults in a child's life is critical to the positive and healthy adjustment, functioning, and sense of safety and security experienced by a child during the post disaster period. Further, efforts should be made to provide practical and age appropriate methods for youth to effectively and safely mitigate stress present in the recovery environment. Ultimately, coping with a disaster is a unique and individual journey, but much can be done to support youth along the pathway to healing. Most importantly, school mental health professionals possess the indispensable skills essential for supporting youth recovery following nature's wrath.


American National Red Cross (2000).  Masters of Disaster. Washington, DC: Author.

Buckley, C. (2004, November 28).  The meanest season. The Miami Herald, pp. L1.

Florida Department of Education (2004, October 21). Hurricane season, 2004, $50 million plus in damages and costs to SUS. Available: http://www.fldoe.org/BOG/meetings/2004_10_21/Hurricane_Update.pdf-17.1KB

La Greca, A.M., Vernberg, E.M., Silverman, W.K., Vogel, A.L., & Prinstein, M.J. (1994). Helping children prepare for and cope with natural disasters: A manual for professionals working with elementary age children. Miami, Florida: University of Miami, Department of Psychology.

Lazarus, P.J., Jimerson, S.R., & Brock, S.E. (2004). Helping children after a natural disaster: Information for parents and teachers. Available: http://www.nasponline.org/resources/crisis_safety/naturaldisaster_ho.aspx

Lazarus, P.J., Jimerson, S.R., Brock, S.E. (2004). Natural disasters. In S.E.Brock, P.J. Lazarus, & S.R. Jimerson (Eds.), Best practices in school crisis prevention and intervention (pp. 433-448). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Litz, B.T. & Gray, M.J. (2004). Early intervention for trauma in adults: A framework for first aid and secondary prevention. In B.T. Litz (Ed.), Early intervention for trauma and traumatic loss (pp. 87-111). New York: Guilford.

National Organization for Victim Assistance (2002).  The community crisis response training manual. Washington, DC: Author.

Reed, S. & Smith, G. (2004, September 29). Survivin' Ivan School. Pensacola News Journal (Education section) pp. 1-15.

Silva, A. (2004). Culturally competent crisis response: Information for school psychologists and crisis teams. Available: http://www.nasponline.org/resources/culturalcompetence/cc_crisis.pdf

Zenere, F.J. (2004).  How children cope with trauma and ongoing threat: The BASIC Ph mode Available: http://www.nasponline.org/resources/crisis_safety/ongoingthreat.aspx

Zenere, F.J. & Lazarus, P.J. (1999). Winds of terror: Children's responses to hurricane and tornado disasters.  In A.S. Canter & S.A. Carroll (Eds.), Crisis prevention and response: A collection of NASP resources (pp.223-229). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

© 2005, National Association of School Psychologists. Frank J. Zenere, NCSP, is a member of the NASP National Emergency Assistance Team and crisis management specialist for the Miami-Dade Public Schools. See related article on page 35.