Hurricane Matthew blew through the Hilton Head and Bluffton areas with wind gusts of up to 60 and 80 mph in the early morning hours of Oct. 8.
People prepared for the storm by putting up shutters, having plenty of bottled water and batteries, and filling up the bathtub.
We know what to do when a storm is coming, and we physically prepare. However, we know less about how to prepare for the psychological and emotional impact that accompanies natural disasters.
A study conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) in 2008 following Hurricane Katrina found that while many people were resilient, the rates of addiction and mental health problems were high among those who were displaced from their homes for two weeks or longer.
Fortunately, this storm was not of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina. However, the long-term mental health effects of Matthew are yet to be determined.
In the days and weeks following the hurricane, I have heard stories of people shaken to the core as they listened to the howling winds and rain pounding against the house while the weather channel warned of numerous tornadoes touching down all around the area. “I now know what it is like to have a panic attack,” one woman told me as she described the anxiety she had huddling in her closet with the dog in the middle of the night.
Those who followed the mandatory order to evacuate were nestled in beds in hotels or other places with friends and family, anxious about what they would be returning home to and how much damage they would have to face.
For some it was an experience of worry and stress, and for others, there was panic and early symptoms of acute stress disorder and depression.
One woman told me the story of returning back to the Lowcountry after having evacuated to be with family up north. A drive that generally takes her 12 hours was 28 hours of continuous driving as she tried to return home for her job.
Days later it was difficult for her to talk about the traumatizing horror of seeing the devastation up close and driving in the dark by herself without any backup for her phone or GPS.
Exhausted and afraid, she drove on back roads with trees down and flooding, every route she set out on ending in a detour to yet another darker, less populated road.
Yes, we survived Hurricane Matthew, and fortunately, no one died in this area. However, the long-term impact on mental health of those most affected by the storm will be felt for a very long time.
Mary Bieda, MS, LPC is a licensed professional counselor and pastoral counselor in private practice in Old Town Bluffton.