In prepping their children for the hurricane, Johnson and her husband did, however, leave out a few details as to why her parents were in town for the week. They live on the coast in Wilmington, North Carolina, an area where residents were encouraged—though not required—to evacuate. “We didn’t really explain how bad it’s supposed to hit at their house,” Johnson says.
(Hurricane Florence was downgraded to a tropical storm on Friday evening, but not before it deluged the Carolinas with rain. Two hurricane-related fatalities were reported in Wilmington.)
Why Hurricane Florence is so dangerous
For families dealing with hurricanes, communication can be a game changer. When Fothergill, the sociologist, spent time with kids who had been through Hurricane Katrina, she found that what often upset those who were most affected was not knowing where their loved ones were. “This was true for a lot of kids whose parents don’t live together, or who are very close to extended family members—maybe those who evacuate separately,” Fothergill says. “Having communication, knowing where they are, and knowing that they’re safe is important.” Fothergill also found kids “felt really stressed and felt tremendous anxiety” when they couldn’t locate their friends.
Of course, the desire to keep loved ones close is what often puts families at a disadvantage, too. “What we saw in Katrina was that people wanted to be with their whole families,” she adds. “So if someone couldn’t evacuate, or wouldn’t evacuate, families would say, ‘Well, let’s just stick this out together.’ That happens quite a bit with elderly family members.” Many kids whose families stayed behind to weather Hurricane Katrina in their home, she said, were traumatized by having been directly involved in scary situations. Fothergill also spoke to several parents who had tried to keep their family together through Katrina at all costs, “but still ended up in situations that were really difficult for their kids.” For example, some hospitals in New Orleans allowed employees to keep their children with them as they worked shifts during the storm, but as the basement flooded and the building lost power, it wasn’t the safest place for kids to be.
So perhaps the most important precautions parents can take for their children are to reassure them that they’re out of harm’s way and to actually get them out of harm’s way. “In a lot of studies, we find that kids who experience the intensity of the event do have a harder time coping,” Fothergill says. “It really is important to evacuate and not be in it. Being with family is important,” she adds, but so is “not feeling like they’re in a life-threatening situation.”
Families are also realizing that letting kids, if they’re able, be part of the preparation of relief efforts can help them feel less powerless over the situation. “Let them be part of preparedness,” Fothergill says. “Let them be part of deciding what gets put in the car. Let them help a friend, or a grandparent. And afterwards, in the immediate aftermath, parents should figure out ways that kids can contribute, because it will help them heal.”