Alton Davis’s parents didn’t tell him much about the coming hurricane before they took shelter. All he knew was that the storm “might be dangerous,” so the family drove from their little house in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie uptown to Davis’s grandparents’ house near Audubon Park. It was a sturdy old building made of brick and stucco, Davis, now an architect, recalls. He’d been ordered to stay in the middle of the house and away from the windows.
It was 1965, and Davis’s parents didn’t know much about the coming storm themselves: No one did. “We didn’t have storm trackers or any of that stuff,” he says. “We just knew there was a hurricane coming. I don’t think people had any idea what the damage could be.”
On September 10, Davis, then 10 years old, rode out Hurricane Betsy while wrapped in a blanket and huddled together with his family in the center hallway of the house. Gallon jugs of drinking water were stationed nearby as they all listened to the wind whistle through the double doors. His little brother cried in his parents’ arms. “They hunkered down and just held us, kept us warm,” he remembers. Then, suddenly, the whistling stopped, and Davis’s father announced they were going outside.
“It was beautiful. Blue, sunny skies,” Davis tells me. “There were trees uprooted and branch limbs everywhere. It was a mess. But we stood out on the front porch, and then the next thing you know, he says, ‘We need to go back in now.’” Davis didn’t understand at the time, but the eye of the storm, a brief period of calm weather, was passing over their house. The winds started up again as soon as they got inside and the “back end” of the hurricane resumed. Hurricane Betsy, which hit the Gulf Coast nearly a decade before the current standard for classifying storms was widely adopted, is believed today to have been equivalent to a Category 3 or even Category 4 hurricane when it made landfall in Louisiana.
Today, most parents of hurricane-prone areas like Louisiana know better than to let their kids go outside during a major storm, even when the eye of the storm is passing over. Davis, now 63, has lived in the New Orleans area for most of his life, and he’s seen firsthand how families in the area are taking hurricane preparation increasingly seriously. When Hurricane Katrina hammered the city in 2005, Davis was again “hunkered down” with his brother, this time with their own kids under strict orders to stay inside until the storm had completely passed. Even though storm-tracking technology has grown more sophisticated and residents are better informed about the specific risks of each storm, Davis has noticed that his neighbors no longer tailor their preparations to individual hurricanes—rather, they start early and prepare for hurricane season. They prepare for the worst before it even materializes.
To many Americans, it certainly feels like devastating hurricanes are happening more often than they used to. Indeed, four of the five costliest hurricanes in recorded U.S. history have made landfall in the past decade. And the fifth, Hurricane Katrina, was still in this century, killing more than 1,800 people and causing more than $125 billion in property damage after it hit in August 2005. One major factor in the rise of overall destruction is increased development along the hurricane-prone coastal regions of the U.S.—which means that more people are at risk of having their homes, schools, workplaces, and churches destroyed in a storm.
But for families, preventing physical damage is only half the battle. “One of the things we’re finally recognizing is that disasters are social phenomena. That they have these complex social dynamics, and that we can’t just think about it in terms of technological fixes,” explains Alice Fothergill, a sociologist at the University of Vermont and a co-author of the book Children of Katrina. Which is largely why the social-science research on hurricanes has exploded in the past decade. Researchers now understand more about the personal toll that these devastating storms inflict on survivors, and especially very young survivors, than they did decades ago. And as a result, the way families prepare for, endure, and recover from hurricanes together looks altogether different, even from when Alton Davis was a child in the ’60s.
Part of the reason families have gotten better at responding to hurricanes is that federal agencies—including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (which is part of the Department of Homeland Security) and the Department of Health and Human Services—have started to work with states to encourage families to develop safety plans well before a hurricane hits. FEMA, for example, has a printable “hurricane preparedness” checklist on its website that includes an inventory of what households should have on hand before a hurricane (categories include “medical needs,” “critical documents,” “tools and safety items,” and “food/supplies”) and what numbers, names, and meeting places family members should memorize should they get separated during the storm.
For families, stocking up on food and water and boarding up windows aren’t the only things to consider. Agencies also recommend that parents take an active role in helping kids cope emotionally before, during, and after hurricanes and other disasters. Ready.gov, a website created by the DHS as a resource for families looking to plan ahead in case of a disaster, has an educational guide for parents about children’s typical reactions to disaster based on their age. Babies who have experienced trauma, it says, will cry more; teenagers may become more withdrawn or more prone to dangerous or risky behaviors. Preschool kids often get separation anxiety and later “reenact the incident or the disaster over and over again.” School-age kids may want to talk about the event continually and become intensely preoccupied with its minor details.
Nicole Johnson, a 35-year-old community college instructor who lives in Durham, North Carolina, is one of the many parents figuring out how to help her kids through Hurricane Florence. When I spoke to her on Wednesday evening, just a day and a half before the storm made landfall in the state, she was implementing some of the same strategies proffered by the DHS. Two days before, Johnson’s 8-year-old son had come to her worried, and told her, “Mom, I don’t want to go to school on Thursday, even if they have school.”
“I was like, ‘Well, let’s just wait and see,’” Johnson says. “I kept reminding him, ‘I won’t send you to school if I don’t think it’s safe for you to be at school.’ I think that was kind of relieving to him.”
By Wednesday night, Johnson had moved from all-hands-on-deck preparation mode to waiting mode—she and her husband had spent the past three days filling their home with groceries, securing away furniture and toys from their yard, and using the delivery service Amazon Prime Now to stock up on supplies. Now their biggest concern was how to maintain the sanity of three little kids—their son and two 4-year-old twin girls—who were about to be confined to their home for what might be days on end. For the younger two of the three Johnson children, the most pressing concern about the coming storm was that their iPads might run out of battery. “We have more fully charged battery packs than people in our house right now,” Johnson says.
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.)
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.”
That was the case for Cody Ward, who lived in Boca Raton, Florida, with his mom and brother when Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne all hit in quick succession. After boarding up the windows in their house while their mother worked at Home Depot outfitting last-minute hurricane preppers with supplies, Ward and his brother proceeded down their street helping their neighbors fortify their homes. It’s probably not a coincidence that Ward, now 32, remembers that time not as a scary or trauma-inducing event, but as a time of community and goodwill.
“It was fun,” Ward says of the day that he and his brother helped all their neighbors prepare for the worst. “We were all friends. We all grew up together.”
If there’s one silver lining to the increased frequency of deadly hurricanes, it’s that the protocols for family survival are being assessed and improved with a new sense of urgency. “We’re having so many big storms,” Fothergill says, “that we’re learning about where we’ve had weaknesses in our systems.” For example, after Hurricane Katrina, biological parents of kids in foster families who had evacuated the city had little idea how to reach them, as phone service often goes out during hurricanes. To complicate matters, some of the records linking kids to their birth parents in the state system were destroyed in the storm. “But the thing is,” she adds, “we’re learning. I know the Department of Children and Families in New Jersey [where Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012] learned a lot from the Louisiana department about that.”
There are, however, still some persistent weaknesses. The question of what to do with family pets in the event of a hurricane, for example, still often causes anguish for families. Leaving a pet behind can be life-threatening and traumatic for the animal, of course, but also “it’s incredibly distressing to some children if the pets become lost or if they die, even if the separation isn’t long,” Fothergill says.
There’s a similar dearth of good options for families with members who can’t evacuate or be with their families because of their age. Cody Ward now lives in Deerfield, Florida, where he works as a respiratory therapist in the neonatal intensive-care unit of a children’s hospital. Immediately after a storm hits, some hospitals are still closed for visitation. In some cases, Ward says, new parents “may have just given birth two days before, and now they can’t see their kids.”
When Hurricane Irma hit last year, Ward knew exactly how to talk to his own son about the hurricane—because his primary concern was why he was stuck inside the house. “He was two and half and had never really experienced anything,” Ward says. He’s already thinking of ways to change his approach as his son gets older. “I’m gonna have to look into it,” he says. And soon, before the next one—the inevitable next one—hits.