Psychological Storm Surges- Managing emotional damage from natural disasters by Dwight Bain, LMHC

Consider that everyone has a capacity for how much stress they can handle in a crisis, (think of it like a balloon inside), and that every major change builds up more internal pressure. So how long can an average person go without "popping" emotionally after a natural disaster like a hurricane, tornado or earthquake? What about a person who is more fragile and susceptible to traumatic stress like an elderly adult or a very young child?

It is likely that we are going to see people experiencing an unusual kind of emotional condition after Hurricane Katrina that I call a "Psychological Storm Surge." This is an emotional reaction which in some ways is similar to the actual storm surge that occurs when a hurricane makes landfall and slams into the coastline with a wall of cold sea water, sometimes over twenty feet high.

Two Types of Damaging Storm Surge

The difference between the two types of storm surge is significant because the damage to life and property when the actual tidal wave of water hits is often the biggest cause of death and destruction from a hurricane. This is the actual physical damage, however, the mental and emotional distress comes the psychological storm surge. This surging wall of emotions build in intensity a few days before a hurricane makes landfall, or after a storm like the four major storms in 2004 in Florida. This is because of the stress, panic and anxiety that builds during the days before a major storm makes land-fall from the fear of the unknown. This stress is further complicated by dealing with the many challenges after the storm, including damage to property, loss of utilities, loss of control of schedule, lack of access to resources or supports and the financial losses from additional expenses complicated by the loss of income by not being able to get to work.

People have a normal need to feel in control of their surroundings and monster storms, like hurricanes or tornados take away all elements of control. You lose control of just about everything during major disasters like these have been. Like the loss of feeling secure in your own home. Loss of stability because you can’t find basic necessities like gasoline, water or ice without having to wait in line for hours. Loss of safety in playing with your children on the beaches or recreation areas that Florida is internationally famous for. Loss of strength in believing that you have the power to keep your personal world focused and balanced. These waves and waves of Loss after loss pile up and leave people feeling completely overwhelmed.

Psychological storm surges from storms like this one bring most of their damaging stress ahead of time, then at a heightened level for as long as the crisis event lasts. For instance, Hurricane Frances packed a five day psychological storm surge, since many of the 3 million people who evacuated ahead of this Texas sized storm system left days ahead of the storm making landfall. This hurricane gave this country something that we have never experienced before in dealing with critical incidents; a disaster that actually grew smaller in physical size and destructive power, while growing ever larger and out of control in our minds. There’s where the stress has built up to crisis proportions for many people and that's why the pressure will continue to grow long after this destructive hurricane season has become a distant memory. Psychological stress can create damage to people and businesses for months to years after a major disaster. Knowing what symptoms to look for can help you manage the stress, instead of becoming overwhelmed by it.

Psychological Storm Surge

The rapid build up of emotional pressure associated with impending danger from a natural disaster. Peaks when the actual impact of the storm is realized, and then gradually diminishes over the course of the recovery and rebuilding time in returning to normal daily activities. This condition is worsened if there are multiple disasters or losses to deal with, for example, consider the stress and pressure that people who had loved ones as passengers on the high-jacked airliners that were crashed into the World Trade Center or loved ones already at work inside the buildings on the morning of 9/11/01. They had to deal with a massive personal relationship loss on top of a catastrophic national disaster. This condition is usually temporary, although the traumatic stress related
damage can last for months to years longer.
~ Dwight Bain, Crisis Counselor

Emotional hurricanes spin questions and confusion

In over twenty years as a crisis counselor I've never experienced disasters quite like these killer hurricanes because they have put millions of people into an emotional state of crisis reaction four times in a six week period. This emotional pressure has affected people, (and their concerned family members around the country), by leaving them reeling from a continual state of limbo and emotional confusion about what to expect next. Picture it as sort of a swirling hurricane of emotions inside, with continual questions spinning through people's minds before the storm hits, then during the storm and then long after the storm passes.

Questions like-

What answers can I tell my kids when I don't have any myself?
How much longer will this go on?
Are the dangerous winds coming yet and what about tornadoes?
Will it ever get here and when will this ever end?
What will happen to me- what will happen to my family?
Can I even afford to pay for all this survival stuff?
How long can I miss work and still keep my job?
What about school and work schedules next week?
How long will we be without electricity again?
How can I help others in my family when I can’t even help myself?
Do we have enough food, water and ice to make it?
Where will we get groceries now that so many stores are damaged?
When will there be more generators and the gasoline to run them?
Will my home and possessions survive the storm?
How can I protect my home from looters without a phone to call 911?
How much longer can I hold on?
Dear God, help us because we can’t take much more!

Killer Storms waiting in the Shadows

Some people described these storms in a very personal way, like a killer lurking in the shadows that you know is there in the darkness, but won't come out. It just stays there, watching and waiting for you to drop your guard so that it can strike when you are the weakest. So you get your defenses ready, you flex your muscles, you tense up and brace for the fight; and then when the fight doesn't come you have a bigger fight to deal with-the fight inside your own head and heart. Your head says to stand your ground and to be firmly focused on the facts of the situation; while your heart considers the feelings inside yourself and the loved ones around you. Feelings like fear, stress, doubt, sadness, anger, confusion, depression, anxiety, panic and the helplessness of being in such an out of control situation.

When you have a prolonged wait in the readiness mode of facing a crisis head-on but then have to keep waiting, the challenge changes from the enemy on the outside to the enemy within. You have to deal with your own challenges of managing resources, energy, time, and emotional strength to just handle the pressure and realities of daily life. When you can face your own challenges and take control of your own emotions you have solved one of the enemies that drain your ability to cope with a crisis. This allows you to protect your supplies of energy to have the stamina to hold on to face the monster that is coming because you still fear that if you let up for even a minute, the monster will destroy you.

The Multiplier Effect of Storm Stress

While these feelings are normal for everyone trapped in a disaster situation like this one, they are multiplied by the number of relational connections that you have tied to the crisis event. For instance, if you see a news story of flooding in the Midwest where homes and businesses are destroyed, you don't react much. You don't know those people or what they experienced when they went back to their homes to find everything they owned ruined by rain and mud. You can't imagine the powerlessness they feel from not even knowing where to start in cleaning up. It's just a news story to you and that's okay. However, if you change that situation to a flood in the small town your parents live in, the same town where you grew up, and everything takes on a life or death level of urgency. That's normal. You only get emotionally involved in the stories that are connected to your life; otherwise you might stay so overwhelmed with the needs of those living in third world countries that you would never have enough emotional energy to deal with your own life.

Stress is dramatically multiplied when your loved ones are involved in the crisis event along with you. A concerned mother has enough stress to deal with, like being scared about the big oak trees around her home; having enough baby food and bottled water on hand to last for days; and getting back to work and school next week. Then you add the sometimes impossible task of keeping her children safe and secure in a prolonged situation that doesn't allow for travel outside of the home and you have doubled the stress on the caregiver of that child. But the multiplier effect of psychological storm surge doesn't stop there. You factor in every relationship that she might be feeling distressed over.

For instance, a woman might be worried about her firefighter husband- who is on duty protecting the public during the storm, her three young children at home and her elderly parents, who evacuated to a hotel in Savannah. This woman is feeling the stress of seven, because you have to consider the emotional and psychological pressure on her and from the six others that she is strongly connected to in her family system.

Emotional Explosions Growing Stronger

When you begin to consider the pressures on people in Florida who waited days for these storms to arrive and then felt trapped in their homes by curfews and forced evacuations while these storms mauled the state from one direction and then another. It is no wonder that people are already experiencing dramatic levels of emotional explosions and reactions. You probably have seen people shouting at each other in public places, or getting suddenly sick with severe colds or flu, or curling up and feeling like a zombie, of feeling completely and totally exhausted with so much to do, but no energy to do it, or over spending on supplies that aren't reasonable to the situation, (like the people who bought chain-saws but don't even have any trees), These emotional reactions are elevated because of the storm stress and likely will continue and get worse over the next few weeks until the effects of the Psychological Storm Surge subsides.

The warning signs of emotional distress following natural disasters like these hurricanes come out in four areas of life. Physical, Emotional, Behavioral and Cognitive. The presence of these symptoms in you, or in a loved one or coworker indicates that the internal pressure has built up to an overwhelming level. When you see many symptoms in any one of these four areas, it is wise to seek professional help from a qualified medical or psychological practitioner to stabilize the situation and prevent things from getting worse.


Shortness of breath
Loss or increase of appetite
Nausea or Diarrhea
Elevated blood pressure
Tightness in chest or chest pain
Muscle fatigue or weakness
Insomnia or Hypersomnia
Increased cold or flu symptoms
Heart Palpitations
Shallow breathing
Abdominal pain

Numb inside

Rapid speech
Tense muscles/neck
Easily startled or jumpy
Withdrawal from others
Accident proneness

Easily Distracted
Poor concentration
Errors in judgment
Mental Fog
Decreased decision making
Reduced creativity or mental focus
Diminished productivity
Loss of objectivity
Fear of losing control
Frightening visual images
Fear of injury, death, pain

Remember that these symptoms can occur in a young child or elderly adult, and that you have to be more aware of their symptoms since they may not be able to tell you exactly how they feel. The more symptoms you see, the greater the possibility for damaging stress to harm you, or someone you love. Take action to talk to the person in need and offer to sit down with them to review the issues and seek treatment options, which begins just by talking about how the storm impacted them. Just talking about the storm and how it affected you will release a great deal of pressure and may be the only action that many people will need to take to help them refocus on the task at hand. However, if the symptoms continue, or worsen or the person takes on more of a “zombie” like flat facial expression, seek medical care immediately since this may indicate a more serious physical condition.

Stages of Storm Stress- moving from feeling panic to finding your way back to “normal” again

The psychological storm surge happens before the storm, followed by nine other levels or stages of “getting back to normal”. Those levels are listed out below as a guide to help you identify and then set up systems or strategies to move through that level and then on to the next in the process. These stages of storm stress will be discussed in greater detail in an upcoming special report, however for now just personalize this list as a beginning point to boldly move forward in finding greater strength after the storm.

Once you assess your position in this process of rebuilding, then it is wise to think about the people closest to you at home or at work. Many people may come through a natural disaster like a hurricane and not feel overwhelmed, but if the people closest to them at home or work are seriously impacted, then the psychological storm surge will continue to build and their lives will continue to drown in wave after wave of storm stress. Consider the level they might be at by noticing the emotional, physical, cognitive or behavioral symptoms that you have witnesses during the storm stress cycle. Understanding and identifying these stages will help you to best determine what to do next to rebuild your personal and professional life and help when you can in rebuilding the lives of those that you care about.

Disaster Phase:

Storm level

Safety level

Survival level

Recovery Phase:

Stressed level

Support level

Structure level

Rebuilding Phase:

Stability level

Security level

Strength level

While we won’t ever know just how desperate some people felt because of the damaging effects of stress after these four hurricanes, we do know that the psychological stress impacted millions of people. When we were finally able to stop holding our breath about what might happen it allowed us to exhale and think about picking up the debris after this killer storm marches past.

Also, it is important to note that the extremely elevated stress after Hurricane Charley had not completely dissipated before Hurricane Frances hit Florida. Then the clean up after Frances had barley started when Hurricane Ivan closed in on the state and just days later Hurricane Jeanne slammed into the Florida coast, almost exactly where Frances had come ashore just a few weeks earlier. These back to back natural disasters are further complicated by the fears of even more damage from the storms yet to come during this overwhelming 2004 hurricane season. The bottom line is that no matter what else happens, there is a cycle to rebuilding your life after a natural disaster and if you flow with that cycle, you can grow stronger on the other side of the storm. Study the chart below for more insight

Disaster Stage
Recovery Stage
Rebuilding Stage

About the author:
-Dwight Bain is a turnaround expert on finding success after a crisis
-Nationally Certified Counselor and Life Coach, in practice since 1984
-Founder of The LifeWorks Counseling Group in Orlando, FL
-Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Expert- Orange County Sheriff's Office, Orlando, FL
-Florida Supreme Court Certified Family Law Mediator
-Life Coach specializing in crisis communication for business professionals-Lifelong resident of Orlando, Florida where he lives with his family and their Yorkie, “Sugar-dog”

Redistribution Notice
The author has given you permission to copy and pass along this material in print or electronically if you believe that it will help others in your family, workplace, church or community; providing that you leave the authors name and contact information attached. For more information about strategies on solving conflict, managing major changes or rebuilding after a crisis, contact the LifeWorks Group in Orlando at 407.647.3900 or visit Thank you.

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