Preparing Practitioners to Respond to Disasters: Hurricane Sandy Response
By Stephanie Yamkovenko
Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the Northeast this week with high winds and rain that led to power outages, flooding, and a death toll that is still rising. When disasters such as hurricanes occur, entire communities are affected—lives are disrupted and infrastructure is often disabled. Occupational therapy practitioners have the opportunity to become a part of the solution to a disaster’s disabling effects.
“Periodically, we are reminded of the power of nature to bring about terrible circumstances,” says American Occupational Therapy Association President Florence Clark, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA. “For the past few days, I have been keeping in touch with my daughter who lives in lower Manhattan and is witnessing first-hand some of the destruction. Occupational therapy practitioners must reach out and help those who have been traumatized by Sandy.”
Occupational therapy practitioners interested in providing disaster relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy or preparing to assist during future disasters can begin by reading AOTA’s concept paper on the role of occupational therapy in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.
“There is so much we can do to help victims cope with their losses and trauma,” says Clark. “Now is the time to pull from our holistic intervention toolbox and help people move forward and rebuild their lives.”
The concept paper will provide a basic understanding of disasters to help support victims, but occupational therapy practitioners should take additional time to reflect and get training before engaging in this work. Web sites such as www.fema.gov can help occupational therapy practitioners be better prepared to volunteer during disaster situations by, for example, learning the terminology used during disaster response and reading about common stress reactions to disaster. Practitioners need to understand the hierarchical structure of organizations and agencies involved in planning and response and can do so by affiliating with local and national organizations such as the American Red Cross or mental health crisis services. For a comprehensive list of disaster resources from AOTA and other organizations, click here.
Focusing on the importance of occupational engagement, occupational therapy practitioners can help restore normalcy for victims of disasters by helping restore habits and reestablish routines. Immediately following a disaster, occupational therapy practitioners’ participation in the disaster response can include ensuring that shelters are accommodating persons with special needs by modifying and adapting environments to promote safety and independent function; facilitating support groups to decrease anxiety; and providing supportive mental health to victims, first responders, and military personnel.
“When occupational therapists provide assistance to those involved in disasters, they facilitate healing through restoration of everyday occupations that hold purpose and meaning for those involved,” says Ginny Stoffel, PhD, OT, BCMH, FAOTA, AOTA president-elect. “Safety and finding ways to connect with others may serve as a way to hold onto a stable sense of self.”
A major part of the response is helping victims regain control after an uncontrollable event. When everything is chaotic, being able to function in a productive and meaningful manner helps bring normalcy back. Whether the response is fixing damaged mailboxes or cleaning up playgrounds for children to resume play, these acts empower victims to take control and reengage in their occupation of living.
Following the disaster response, occupational therapy practitioners’ contributions to the recovery effort involve repairing and rebuilding disrupted activities and routines. Victims of disasters need to develop coping skills to deal with the effects of their experiences. By engaging in occupation, disaster survivors can restructure their routines to cope with stress and anxiety.
Occupational therapy practitioners volunteering during the response and recovery of Hurricane Sandy should pay attention to how resources are used to address the needs of victims. By reviewing mistakes made during this response, communities can work to address those problems to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
Preparing for future disasters is important, and occupational therapy practitioners can work with their communities to develop emergency preparedness plans by offering their expertise in areas such as designing shelters for persons with special needs and training staff and volunteers on assisting persons with disabilities during a crisis. To get involved, contact local agencies before a disaster and offer your services to emergency planners by outlining the ways occupational therapy can assist the community following a disaster.
“AOTA would like to encourage occupational therapy practitioners to consider their role in disaster relief and get involved,” says AOTA Executive Director Fred Somers. “We believe that the contribution occupational therapy brings is not only unique, but is also an important way to help disaster victims reestablish the routines and roles that will enable them to get back to living life to its fullest.”
Stephanie Yamkovenko is AOTA’s staff writer.