October 9, 2017
Safe and dry in our Denver hotel room, DC and I watched, along with the rest of the country, Hurricane Irma, like a woman scorned, carve her destruction up the Sunshine State. Our heads shook like weather vanes as we tried to make sense of the wreckage. Meanwhile, we surfed the wild waves of our emotions — storm surges of relief, worry and guilt.
We had flown out of Florida for a fortuitously timed wedding, leaving our about-to-be-ravaged state just ahead of the airport closure. Though relieved to be out of harm’s way, we worried about our Happy Yellow House, just north of Orlando, and unequivocally inside the cone of uncertainty. The question was not whether we would we get hit, but how hard. We felt guilty not being there, dancing at a wedding while those back home hunkered down or evacuated.
Two weeks earlier, we were similarly glued to the Weather Channel watching Hurricane Harvey wreak havoc on Houston, where my daughter lives. Thankfully, she remained above water, though nearby, helicopters were rescuing residents from their roofs, as neighbors kayaked down her street.
From the comfort of our air-conditioned hotel room, we tracked the storm. Even those well outside the path of destruction watched transfixed, glued to a reality horror film — the crawling lines of traffic (the biggest evacuation in U.S. history), the widening power outages (ultimately 6 million customers), the powerful wind flipping boats like coins and houses like cards — thinking, remote in hand, “There but for the grace of God.”
Disasters like these, the kind that literally hit home, not only remind us that terra isn’t always firma, but also how much we take for granted, like an intact roof over our heads, dry floors, the power to charge our phones, and the highly underrated comfort of routine. If anything good was coming of this, it was that everyone in America stopped, if only momentarily, to consider how much home matters.
Though I wanted, come hell or high water, or both, to get home and ride out the storm, we couldn’t. Our return flight Sunday was cancelled, and the airport wouldn’t reopen for a few days.
At 1 a.m. Sunday, Irma hit our town. Five hours later, our neighbor texted videos. Our house and street had weathered the storm miraculously well. Unlike most of the city, we still had power.
I didn’t relax until I saw for myself. We got home, flicked on the lights, opened the blinds, and let our lungs breathe for the first time in days. Not everyone was so lucky, of course.
Seeing pictures of people standing in water to their knees, or staring numbly at a mound of rubble where their home once was, makes us rightly put ourselves in their sodden shoes: What if that were my home?
The disbelief in their faces asks: Where do I begin?
By reconstructing something, anything, that feels like a routine, say recovery experts.
Routines keep you on track amid the uncertainties of daily life, says Samantha Heintzelman, a researcher at the University of Virginia, who has studied the importance of routine. Routine provides structure, which lets us organize our lives – including the ones blown to bits.
“Having a daily routine is associated with feeling that your life is meaningful,” she said. Routines create a sense of self: “This is what I do or this is who I am.”
When our patterns are disrupted, we are as adrift as an unanchored boat.
For all their devastation, Harvey and Irma left behind a lesson in gratefulness. This morning I got to wake up under a solid roof, find my toothbrush where I left it, make the bed, brew the coffee, read the paper, and walk the dogs, just like I do every wonderful day. And that was not lost on me.
Out in my community, depleted stores are slowly restocking as businesses reopen. Homeowners are cleaning up yards. Crews are clearing debris from streets and restoring power. We’re getting back to normal. Back to the routine.
In the aftermath of disaster, those affected often ask, “Now what?” Here are some tips:
- Get your groove back. Having your daily routine disrupted is far more disconcerting than most people realize. Daily routines, such as taking a shower, making coffee, and driving to work, give life meaning, say psychologists. A feeling of coherence comes from having routines. That day-to-day sameness forms a sort of bedrock on which the rest of our life relies.
- Find the normal. Granted, it’s hard to get back to normal when the power is down, but the more you can recreate your patterns, and stick with them the more normal you will feel. Even if you can’t stay in your home, take with you your favorite coffee cup and pillow.
- Appreciate what’s left. Counterintuitive as this seems, try to reframe the loss. Rather than look at what’s gone, hold your loved one’s hand, hug your pet, and take stock of what remains and what really matters.
- Accept and give help. Studies show that one sign of resilience is the ability to accept help. If people offer to let you stay with them, or make you dinner, accept. These offers are as important for those giving the help as it is for those receiving it. Those who refuse offers of assistance tend to recover more slowly, say experts.
- Connect with those you love. The silver lining in a disaster may be that friends and family members whom you don’t stay in touch with reconnect. You find and secure your support network.