Three weeks ago, much of the country was celebrating Labor Day, a time to rest from our toils and enjoy the company of family and friends. In Miami where I live, most of us were on edge, wondering if Hurricane Dorian would finally make the promised turn North, before hitting our shores. It was a familiar routine for my family. As much as the experts warn to be prepared at the start of storm season, I am a procrastinator by nature. That means long lines to buy the essentials; non-perishable food, water, batteries, and gas.
Tempers run short as stress runs high. Anyone who has lived in Miami any length of time has been through this routine before, and knows the devastation that can occur when one of these storms hit. Throughout the summer, I keep a wary eye on developments in the Tropics, and when a storm does develop, there is the seemingly endless tracking of the Cone of Concern.
Three years ago, Hurricane Irma had much of Florida in its sites, projected to be at least a category 4 when it hit. At one point, the cone of possible sites for landfall seemed to aim right for my house. I had lived through Hurricane Andrew over 20 years earlier. The devastation was still raw in my soul. I had ridden out several small storms since then, but things were different with Irma. I had children and pets to consider. I looked at the oaks that now towered high over my house and made the decision to evacuate. My spouse and I filled the 2 cars with as much as they could hold. I drove with my daughter, the 90-pound dog, and the guinea pig. My spouse drove with our son and the four cats.
In retrospect, the evacuation process was almost as stressful as the storm itself. On a normal day, I can reach Atlanta from my house in about 10 hours. On this day, it took 24 hours. Driving behind my spouse, I felt helpless as I watched her drift over the lane markers, ever fearful that in her present state of exhaustion that she would run off the road. We couldn’t count on gas being readily available so we stopped frequently to top off the tanks and check on the animals. When we finally reached our destination, I remember sliding out of the car, barely able to move.
I thought that being safe would give me a sense of peace, and yet I found my heart pounding as I lay awake watching storm coverage, worried for friends and colleagues left behind, as well as our home. Fortunately, Irma’s wrath was not as bad as initially feared and we returned home in a few days. While our lives and property were spared, I still suffer from extreme anxiety as storm season approaches, worried that once again we will have to evacuate, or worse, that I might lose all that I own.
Fortunately, for those of us in South Florida, Hurricane Dorian, the ferocious category 5 storm that decimated much of the Bahamas, turned before striking our coast. For days, I felt mesmerized by the constant coverage of the devastation. I watched as shell shocked survivors recounted their stories of survival. Some, unable to put in words all that they had seen, sat quiet, trying to process the unimaginable loss and terror. Others could do nothing but cry.
As relief efforts pour into the Bahamas, including food, water, and medical care, I can’t help but wonder about the psychological damage created by this storms fury. It left in its wake unimaginable stress, grief, anxiety, helplessness and hopelessness. With the realities of climate change becoming ever more apparent, it is time that we add the devastating impact to mental health to the conversation.
Rev. Lisa LeSueur
Rev. Lisa LeSueur is the Pastor of Congregational and Staff Care at Coral Gables United Church of Christ and a member of the Board of Directors of the UCC Mental Health Network. She serves as the UCC Florida Conference WISE Mental Health Coordinator and the Suicide Prevention Initiative Coordinator for Nami Miami. She lives in Coral Gables, Florida with her wife and their two children.