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AARP AARP States Florida Health & Wellbeing

Coping With the Anxieties, Fears and Stresses of a Hurricane

Man with umbrella standing on the pier

UPDATED: May 2020

Those of us who live in hurricane-prone areas often comfort ourselves with the fact that, while hurricanes can be devastating disasters, they at least have the advantage of being foreseeable.

Our friends in other parts of the world grapple with wildfires, earthquakes and tornadoes that can pop up with little to no notice. But storms that can be seen on satellite images and weather radar for days, even weeks, in advance. If you’re in the storm’s potential path, you have plenty of time to prepare.

The curse that goes with that blessing, however, is that it’s easy to be overwhelmed with fear, anxiety and dread as the storm goes closer.

This is especially true in times of heightened emotional stress – like now, when Florida and the nation are in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, some fear is healthy; it motivates us to action and keeps us alert to the risks at hand. But too much fear can be debilitating emotionally and counterproductive to making good decisions about preparations.

What pushes us over that line from healthy to unhealthy fear, often, is the wall-to-wall coverage that hurricanes get in local and national media. Not only specialists like the Weather Channel but all major news networks send scores of reporters and cameras to the scene when they think a storm is headed ashore, because the visual impact of whipping winds, torrential rains, and destructive flooding is news … and it also makes for good ratings.

That’s doubly true this year, when Floridians will have to weigh not only the risks of an oncoming hurricane, but how to cope with that tropical weather system in the midst of a pandemic.

When you are in the storm’s projected path (we coastal residents know what it means to be "in the cone"), there is a temptation to just leave the TV on to be sure you know what’s coming. And that constant barrage of warnings is the trigger that can push you beyond the brink of what’s healthy.

The good news is that there are ways to stay informed about a storm without subjecting yourself to that emotional ringer. Here are some tips:

  • Start of the season: Be prepared. This is the easiest to say and requires the most forethought, but whenever you see the hurricane guide come out at the local store or in the local paper, pick it up, use it as your cue to stock up on supplies, update your plan of what you and your family would do if a storm headed your way, and keep the guide in a place you’ll remember until a storm threatens. AARP Florida has its own hurricane resource list, developed with Floridians 50-plus in mind. Download the list here. It’s been updated to take account of those special items that you may need because of the coronavirus.
  • Storm brewing: Know when it’s time to pay attention. Chances are, you’ll hear when a storm is beginning to loom many days before it’s time to act. The first time you see a projected path, unless you’ve been out of touch for a while, the forecast cone will stop short of where you live. Use that as a cue to be sure you’re prepared (see No. 1), but otherwise make a note to check back in a few days later. Only when the cone of uncertainty is close enough to include where you live (or is lateral to where you live) do you really need to begin to pay attention.
  • You’re in the cone: Learn the forecast schedules. Know the schedule for updates and only tune in when there’s new information. The National Hurricane Center only updates forecasts every three hours, and only does major updates every six hours. Check in only at update periods and otherwise turn the TV off or away from your favorite weather tracking channel. While they may go to 24-hour coverage of the storm, they’ll really only have new information at those update points. Use your time to put your preparations into place, not to overdose on the coverage.
  • Consider relying on web-based sources. The National Hurricane Center posts its own updates that you can access, and if you want more context, viewing reports on a local news website in text form can be less ominous than watching and listening to video reports. Before a storm, your focus should really be on information, not emotion; use the tools that maximize the former and minimize the latter to learn about the storm’s path, recommended or mandatory evacuations, other directives from local authorities like school closings or event cancellations, and any last directions on what you need to do to complete preparations.
  • The storm is upon you: Tune in more regularly during the storm, but keep distractions as well. When a major storm hits, you need to know if there are tornado warnings or other major calls to action, so you will want and need to keep checking the news. But when those major announcements come, there will be alert signals to help you cue in to pay attention. Otherwise, have your feeds on in the background (or set regular reminders to check in) and focus on other things – books, games, music or movies if you have power can all help keep you from getting emotionally overloaded.
  • After the storm: Just as during the storm, updates will be less predictable and more sporadic than in the early stages of predictions. Stay focused on actionable information – reports on things that will help you, whether it’s relief services, phone numbers to call for help, or guidance around where to get supplies. To the extent that you can do this via non-video sources, the better for your emotional impact.
  • When you’re safe: Whether the storm missed you, or whether you were just fortunate to be spared significant damage. now is the time to pay attention to the images that show the storm’s impact…but for a purpose. It can be easy to get sucked into a feeling of hopelessness by watching non-stop coverage of flood or wind damage and hear the stories of lives disrupted or lost. Put yourself on time limits; watch enough to let your empathy and compassion push you to help, whether as a donor, a volunteer, an advocate or just as a friend and fellow human being. If you find yourself feeling helpless, it’s time to turn off the media and start doing something to help. Look for the opportunities in your community.

Keeping the balance between being informed and being overwhelmed takes work. Hopefully these tips help. If you have others, please share them! Help others prevent fear from flooding their lives and leverage love to help each other recover!

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