Anxiety plagues storm survivors
April 27, 2011, is a day that no one in Franklin County will soon forget.
Many of the county’s citizens went through things that most people could never even comprehend, let alone understand.
People in Phil Campbell and East Franklin were actually in the path of the 200 mph winds of the E-F5 tornado – they heard things, saw things, felt things that still haunt them even now.
The county lost 27 of its residents that day – people who were fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons and friends to so many others who still grieve their loss.
And countless other residents lost homes and businesses or were just completely rocked by the fact that a massive, deadly, horrific tornado had struck so close to home.
Whatever effects this tragic event had on the local citizens, many of those effects are still very much present in the form of varying degrees of storm anxiety, especially when days like this past Thursday occur.
For the past week, local weather authorities had been warning about the possibility of severe weather and tornadoes striking out across the state throughout the day on Thursday.
And when the reports of severe weather started up, so did the storm anxieties.
Nancy Cooper, who serves as a counselor with The Healing Place in Muscle Shoals, said this is very common for people who have been through such a traumatic event as the tornado outbreak on April 27, 2011.
“These people have gone through something very shocking that isn’t easy to cope with or get over,” Cooper said.
“And even though they may be dealing with the situation the best they can, certain triggers can prompt the anxiety to start all over again.
“It could be something they hear, such as thunder or high winds; it could be something they see, like lightening or dark clouds; it could even be something they smell, like the smell of rain or the smell of metal.
“Many different things can trigger those feelings of anxiety for a person who has gone through something as horrible as a tornado.”
Cooper, who still works with several children in East Franklin and Phil Campbell who suffer from storm anxiety, said that anxiety symptoms can manifest in many different ways and no two people will be alike.
“On days like Thursday, people can begin to feel anxious even days in advance,” Cooper said.
“They can get upset to the point of crying or even becoming physically ill with an upset stomach, throwing up, not being able to pay attention, and in children, misbehavior or acting out can be a symptom.”
Cooper said these symptoms and fears can seem irrational to someone who does not suffer from storm anxiety.
“Unless you actually have a fear of a potential storm threat, you probably won’t be able to grasp how serious this is to someone who does,” she said.
“And just telling them to ‘get over it’ will not help.”
Cooper said for those in the area who may be struggling with storm anxiety, there are several coping exercises that might help.
“There are some cognitive ways that people can deal with upcoming bad weather such as having a specific severe weather plan in place and knowing exactly what to do in that type of a situation,” she said.
“Uncertainty can cause more anxiety.”
Cooper said with children, which is the primary age she works with, it’s important for the adults in their lives to reassure them of a safety plan and that they are keeping a close watch on any severe weather that is being forecast.
“Just knowing that someone else is monitoring the situation can be a big comfort,” Cooper said.
“Having things available such as a blanket or a stuffed animal to hold or an iPod to listen to to drown out the noise can also help.”
Cooper said if a person’s storm anxiety is so severe that it interferes with normal activities or it is persistent and not easing up, even when some of the coping mechanisms are employed, it might be time to seek professional assistance to help with the problem.
“It can be very beneficial just to talk to someone about your specific anxieties and what you are experiencing,” Cooper said.
“You may not ever completely forget the reasons behind your anxieties but you can at least find ways to deal with it and manage it that work for you.”
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website Ready.gov, peak tornado season in the southern states is March through May, which puts the area directly in the middle of the season.
Ready.gov lists the following tips for both before and during a tornado event:
• To begin preparing, you should build an emergency kit with necessary items such as food, water, a battery-powered weather radio, extra batteries and a first-aid kit.
• Make a family communications plan.
• Listen to NOAA Weather Radio or to commercial radio or television newscasts for the latest information. In any emergency, always listen to the instructions given by local emergency management officials.
• Be alert to changing weather conditions. Look for approaching storms.
• Look for the following danger signs: dark, often greenish sky; large hail; a large, dark, low-lying cloud (particularly if rotating); a loud roar, similar to a freight train.
• If you see approaching storms or any of the danger signs, be prepared to take shelter immediately.
If you are in a structure:
• Go to a pre-designated shelter area such as a safe room, basement, storm cellar, or the lowest building level. If there is no basement, go to the center of an interior room on the lowest level (closet, interior hallway) away from corners, windows, doors, and outside walls. Put as many walls as possible between you and the outside. Get under a sturdy table and use your arms to protect your head and neck.
• In a high-rise building, go to a small interior room or hallway on the lowest floor possible.
• Put on sturdy shoes.
• Do not open windows.
If you are in a mobile home or trailer:
• Get out immediately and go to the lowest floor of a sturdy, nearby building or a storm shelter. Mobile homes, even if tied down, offer little protection from tornadoes.
If you are outside with no shelter:
• Immediately get into a vehicle, buckle your seat belt and try to drive to the closest sturdy shelter.
• If your vehicle is hit by flying debris while you are driving, pull over and park.
• Stay in the car with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows; cover your head with your hands and a blanket, coat or other cushion if possible.
• If you can safely get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway, leave your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands
• Do not get under an overpass or bridge. You are safer in a low, flat location.
• Never try to outrun a tornado in urban or congested areas in a car or truck. Instead, leave the vehicle immediately for safe shelter.
• Watch out for flying debris. Flying debris from tornadoes causes most fatalities and injuries.
For more information on ways to prepare for severe weather, visit www.ready.gov.