NASP Communiqué, Vol. 33, #5
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
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 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.
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).
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
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.
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
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:
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
for children to share their concerns.
Promote and praise
positive coping and problem solving skills.
in activities that permit them to make choices and re-establish some control
over their environment.
in recovery-oriented activities and projects.
Consider the developmental
stage and experiences of each child.
information into the curriculum.
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
- Provide an accurate account of the
- Respect individuals that decline the
opportunity to discuss their experience
- Promote acceptance and validation of
reactions and feelings
- Emphasize the importance of social
- 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.
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.
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.
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age children. Miami, Florida: University of Miami, Department of Psychology.
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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.