Mental Health Impacts of Hurricane Sandy

Apart from the physical destruction left by the impact of Hurricane Sandy, various psychological effects remain.  One individual in New York who was not physically affected himself, is still having nightmares of his brother trapped in a car with water rising to his neck.  Anthony Gatti wakes up screaming despite the fact that he managed to save his brother’s life, at the peak of Superstorm Sandy. While he knows logically he saved him, the image of him being trapped will not go away. “My mind tells me I couldn’t save him, he dies,” he explains.
The State of New York – having dealt with some of the physical rebuilding – now has to focus on the emotional and mental trauma of its victims.  It is hard to estimate just how extreme this is, as many of those suffering are too scared to even leave their homes now.  The government has responded by dispatching 1,000+ crisis counselors to the most badly affected areas of New York and New Jersey.

The counselors’ primary job has been to transmit the message that anxiety and insomnia are a completely natural consequence following such a trauma.  It is only when this begins to intervene with everyday life that one has to take the next step by getting additional help.  This was very much the case with Hurricane Katrina victims too, seven years ago.  As US Public Health Service commander Eric Hierholzer pointed out, “folks are starting to realize that they may be in this for the long haul. And things aren’t necessarily going to get better tomorrow or next week.”

These are a few of the figures to date: Far Rockaway’s St. John’s Episcopal Hospital has encountered a 20 percent increase in walk-in patients in its psychiatric department since the storm hit.  There has been an escalation of 25 percent in children being referred to the hospital’s outpatient mental health programs from the schools.   It has been a very traumatic time for the children.  Anything connected to water has become a source of difficulty, including even rain and swimming pools.

Thankfully, Project Hope has helped out a lot.  Funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency grant of $8.2m, counselors have been sent to local areas with the prospect of assisting 200,000+  individuals. This includes those who may have language barriers, such as immigrants. In addition the New Jersey Hope and Healing Program has been involved in providing response counselors to those in need. There is a tremendous amount of suffering, post-traumatic stress and psychological problems that have to be tackled.  Health is about so much more than just one’s physical being – a trauma such as Superstorm Sandy can endure for much longer than cuts and bruises but thankfully it seems that NYC is aware of this and is acting on it.

New York’s Medically-Vulnerable

While Hurricane Sandy might be over, its after-effects are still being felt by those who are medically vulnerable in the region. Herewith are some of the health risks those in the New York and New Jersey areas may expect to encounter: exposure to carbon monoxide; injuries and infections resulting from floodwaters (this includes bacterial; electrical; eye and hand injuries).  Mold is still a concern as that could develop once one’s home is exposed to standing water for a long period of time.  It is thus important to immediately dry and remove water-damaged items to further prevent mold.

People are also at risk of hypothermia, so it is crucial to find ways to stay warm when there is no electricity.  One way of doing so is by dressing in layers as this makes a great personal insulator.  Body temperature can be maintained by drinking hot, sweetened drinks.  The good news is that according to New York City’s Health Department, tap water is safe for drinking in those areas that did not encounter flooding.  Often, sewage overflows do not affect the city’s water supplies, but each case needs to be examined individually.  Generally common sense is advised; once one notices or smells something strange about the water, it should not be consumed.

When it comes to food, food safety rules must be followed.  If it wasn’t properly refrigerated or encountered any exposure to floodwater, it should be exposed of.  Any food items touched by sewage water should also be dumped. 

It should also be remembered that all chronic diseases – especially diabetes and high blood pressure – are likely to be exacerbated in the wake of the hurricane. Extra care thus needs to be taken.