On October 10th of 2018, Hurricane Michael hit Florida’s gulf coast, destroying more than just people’s homes and businesses. Child abuse survivors at the Gulf Coast Children’s Advocacy Center lost safe spaces to heal. Therapists were forced to provide therapy to survivors anywhere they could – from downed tree trunks to McDonald’s parking lots. When Lauren’s Kids heard about the destruction, we quickly got to work, partnering with incredible supporters from AshBritt for over three years to rebuild the Gulf Coast C.A.C. and help the families, therapists, and survivors heal from this storm of devastation. We were honored to unveil the multi-year rebuild of the Gulf Coast Children’s Advocacy Center (Gulf Coast C.A.C.) in February, 2021.
Today, years later, residents and survivors across Florida’s west coast continue to heal from the destruction left behind by Hurricane Ian’s Cat 5 winds and record flooding. And while the news cameras have mostly left the scene, thousands of Floridians continue to struggle in its wake. Unfortunately, many share the same experience as those in the Panhandle – children and adults who survived childhood sexual abuse and whose past trauma was triggered by the storm.
“Natural disasters like a hurricane and childhood sexual abuse are completely different experiences, yet for many survivors, the storm has triggered the same feeling they had while in the abuse cycle – loss of control, minimizing your experience, fear of a reoccurrence. These are all things our clients were met with after Michael,” said Tasha Jackson, Trauma Therapist at the Gulf Coast C.A.C., reflecting on her clients’ experiences post-Hurricane Michael.
After Michael, Tasha and her colleagues packed trucks full of food, hygiene products, and toys and delivered them daily to local residents— knowing these essentials were helping to prevent abuse at the hands of overburdened adults. Lauren’s Kids sat down with Tasha to learn what survivors and therapists affected by Ian can do to continue their path toward healing and rebuilding in the wake of a devastating hurricane.
HEALING IS A PROCESS
Growing from victim to thriving survivor is not done overnight – it’s a process, often spanning across a person’s lifetime, and evolves just a s we do. New events can revive previous trauma. One of Tasha’s clients experienced a recurrence of childhood nightmares, and another who had been making strides could no longer go to the grocery store alone after experiencing Hurricane Michael. But there are tools we all have, even in the bleakest of circumstances, to reclaim our survivorship and to help others cope through their relived trauma.
Many therapists on Florida’s west coast have experienced loss from Hurricane Ian, yet they continue to serve abuse survivors in their community. Not giving yourself the space to heal for the sake of others can result in burnout and affect your quality of work. “You can’t pour from an empty cup,” said Tasha. “It is important that we as helpers care for ourselves with the same compassion as we do our clients.” As a therapist, you help people deal with some of the most challenging aspects of their life, and it’s important to recognize your own struggles and practice self-care. In learning to help yourself, you will be better equipped to help your clients.
Another issue therapists at the Gulf Coast C.A.C. encountered was helping their younger clients understand Hurricane Michael and its aftermath. Many children personified the hurricane, fearing it would return as an abuser had. In response, therapists and caregivers can use age-appropriate instructional materials like factual picture books to teach about hurricanes.
Adults who have survived abuse or caregivers should not minimize or compare the experience. “Instead of saying ‘You shouldn’t be afraid anymore,’ or ‘At least the damage wasn’t as bad as they had it,’ acknowledge the fear and understand its source,” explained Tasha. “Sitting down with a child to address their questions and fears and validating their feelings of frustration provides a safe space for a child to express.” Adults can implement this same strategy in their own healing. In understanding the frustrations and fear everyone is experiencing compounded by previous trauma that the storm has revived, adult survivors can better recognize their response and manage their anxiety.
Another recommendation Tasha mentioned was to be selective about what and how much news you watch to protect your peace of mind. Limit your and your child’s exposure to negative images of the hurricane and its aftermath. While news coverage is an important way to keep up to date on the emergency response, the imagery can be too much for many viewers.
Additionally, focus on the acts of kindness you see around you. “I remember just days after the storm when we lost power, a man was standing in the street handing out ice cream to people in their cars because he could no longer keep them cold. It was a moment of happiness during a really difficult time,” said Tasha. Often after a disaster, communities rally, and looking out for those moments brings a newfound hope.
Most importantly, know when to ask for help. While asking for help can be uncomfortable, remember, no one can do everything. Recovery can take a village. Knowing when to fall back on your support system is the best thing you can do.
WHERE TO FIND MORE HELP
For many, natural disasters remind us of earlier trauma and make it more difficult to respond when caught in its aftermath. Remember that, despite current challenges, effective coping skills and social support allow survivors to stay rooted in their recovery. If you or someone you know continues to suffer, text NAMI to 741-741 to reach the National Alliance on Mental Health’s Crisis Text Line. You will be connected with a trained crisis counselor and receive free, 24/7 crisis support via text message.
The holiday season is a time to count our blessings and to give back to those who are most in need. This Thanksgiving, we encourage you to visit our Amazon Smile registry hosted by Lauren’s Kids to send needed materials to the Children’s Advocacy Center in Fort Myers. Your contributions will be used to support therapists, children, and their families recovering from Hurricane Ian and support their healing journey. Click the link here to contribute: https://www.target.com/gift-registry/gift/laurens-kids-helps.