It’s been 5 days since Texas came under siege from Hurricane Harvey and it left up to 51 inches of rain in its wake. Several Southern cities suffered almost complete loss of homes and businesses. The Houston metropolitan area reported 14 deaths, including one of a police officer who was trying to report for duty. Hundreds of thousands of homes have been damaged or lost, and thousands of people are now in makeshift shelters across the city. We have slowly begun the process of repair and rebuilding, and many Houstonians are returning to work. Many others, including well-known local celebrities like J.J. Watt and MattressMack . are volunteering their time and giving money to help those who were not so fortunate. The rescue and recovery efforts have been lauded for the absence of issues tied to politics, religion, or race.
Despite this, we must not forget that this was a natural disaster unlike anything that’s been seen in recent decades. Much like Katrina and Sandy, Hurricane Harvey brought to the people who have lived through the initial trauma the fear, nightmares, emotional distress, and sleep disturbances associated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They will require significant support and monitoring to determine whether there is a need for medical intervention, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, behavioral modification, or pharmacotherapy. However, we are also witnessing something psychiatrists are just becoming more knowledgeable about – PTSD due to indirect trauma.
Just in the 2 days of being back to work, I have heard many stories of people who witnessed the flooding in nearby neighborhoods or on the news. Some have helped friends, family, or strangers clean up damaged homes. Most have feelings of immense guilt in surviving Harvey with little to no damage, while fellow Houstonians lost almost everything. Again and again, I shared my patients’ helplessness and inadequacy over not being able to do more. Some even share the same sleep distrubances, trouble concentrating, rumination, intrusive thoughts, and mood changes as the flood victims, although to a lesser degree. While only time will tell if these symptoms blossom into PTSD, the new diagnostic criteria offered by the DSM-5 give mental health care professionals the opportunity to identify at-risk individuals in these situations whom we might have previously missed.
Taking early warnings in stride
When the anchors and journalists began reporting about a tropical cyclone heading toward the Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 17, most Houstonians – myself included – flipped the channel. Living off the Southern Coast of the United States meant seeing more than our fair share of storm systems, including hurricanes. Each time, no matter the damage or the loss, Texans would pull themselves up by their bootstraps and band together to rebuild their beloved city.
So, it’s no surprise that even as Harvey was upgraded to a hurricane and prepared to breach land, we went about business as usual. However, less than a week later, countless residents of the Lone Star State prepared for what promised to be one of the worst storms in recent history.
Moving to Houston from Dallas for college back in 1998, I fell in love with the city and made it my home. I was here when Tropical Storm Allison made landfall in 2001, leaving up to 37 inches of rain and massive flooding in its wake. The Texas Medical Center, where I was working at the Baylor Human Genome Lab for the summer, suffered about $2 billion worth of damage.
I watched as the images and videos of the city under water splashed across my television screen. I witnessed the floodwaters firsthand as my friends and I carefully drove to an overpass and found a vast body of water where a convergence of three highways used to be visible. I was fortunate not to have been affected by the flood, but the fear of West Nile virus worried me for days because of the mosquito infestation that followed. Eventually, the city recovered, the water receded, and we persevered.
In 2005, in the wake of Katrina, Southern Texans were warned of an impending Category 3 hurricane named Rita . Having been inundated with local and national news coverage of the devastation, and hearing the personal stories of evacuees from New Orleans, Houstonians definitely took more notice this time. More than 3 million people from Houston and the surrounding areas evacuated inland before it arrived, but the chaos resulted in indirect deaths from panicked people trying to leave.
I, along with my two best friends and my boyfriend, were among the many who made the lengthy drive to Dallas, where my parents were anxiously waiting. What should have been a 4-hour drive turned into 10, and that was the result of all the back roads we took to get around the majority of the traffic. There were mass outages around the city, but within a few days, we were all back home. Rita left behind much less damage than predicted, and after the water receded, we persevered.
My third encounter with a hurricane was the Category 2 Ike 3 years later. There were mixed emotions going into this one, with many citizens split between evacuating and staying behind. I was in residency by then, and with only a voluntary evacuation for Houston (compared with a mandatory one in Galveston and the coastal cities), I opted to remain. I had already prepared for the worst by barricading all the glass and stocking up on supplies. In addition, I was living in a two-story townhome in an area considered part of a 200-year flood plain, so I figured I was safe. When Ike struck the city, I was up for several hours listening to the howl of the wind and the insistent smacks of rain against my windows. I left town once the coast was clear, not because of flooding, but because Ike knocked out power and water for much of Houston in the middle of a horridly hot September. I stayed with my parents for about a week until my complex had fixed everything, and seeing that the water had receded, I persevered.
Harvey’s vast destruction
This past week, when Category 4 Hurricane Harvey struck my beloved city, I could not have imagined the losses that were waiting for us. After finishing up a short workday on Friday, Aug. 25, I made my last run for supplies before the weekend. Like many others, I had been keeping an eye on the news as we heard about the destruction Harvey had wreaked on Rockport, South Padre, and Corpus Christi. We all knew that this one was the real deal, that Harvey was going to challenge us in every way possible. For the next 4 days I hunkered down in my house, waiting out the periods of torrential rain while keeping a close eye on the news. At worst, my neighborhood flooded up to the front sidewalk, but water never entered my home, as it did for so many unfortunate individuals. I never lost power, air conditioning, or Internet access. The most distressing thing to happen to me was the inability to leave my home for fear of being caught in the floodwater.
Having been through three previous major floods, I can honestly say this was unlike anything I had ever experienced. On the first full night of Harvey, I must have checked the rise of water in front of my house every 30 minutes. I was up until nearly 5 a.m., worrying and obsessively watching the news for the most up-to-date predictions. Every time it rained after the first downpour, I could feel the tension take over my body while my mind raced over the possibilities. Through social media, I was privy to the suffering of my friends but helpless to intervene. All the while, Harvey raged on. In spite of the rain and the danger of being swept away, the rescue efforts by neighbors far and wide began. I had never been prouder to call myself a Texan.
We are #The CityWithNoLimits.
We are #HoustonStrong.
We are #TexasStrong.
When the waters recede, we will persevere.
Jennifer Yen, MD, is a board-certified child, adolescent, and adult private practice psychiatrist in Houston. She also is a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and serves on the Consumers Issues Committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.