Surviving Trauma: Natural Disasters Leave Mark Years Later on Survivors

BY ANURA SHARMA
URBAN HEALTH MEDIA PROJECT

MIAMI — Caio Lopes was a high school student in 2005 in Palm Beach County when Hurricane Wilma hammered South Florida on October 24. 

The Category 3 storm packed winds of 120 miles per hour when it made landfall in Cape Romano, about 113 miles from Lopes’s home. When it passed, it left 25 people dead and $19 billion in damage. 

Lopes, 26, who lived in Lake Worth at the time, survived the storm without physical injury. But the impacts of the experience stay with him to this day. 

Natural disasters can be traumatic events for survivors, who often experience fear, anxiety and uncertainty, may witness the injury or death of friends, neighbors or loved ones, and may lose jobs, income or homes as a result. Research on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the southeast and devastated New Orleans in 2005, estimates that more than one-third of survivors suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), often with a delayed onset and lasting impact. 

Wilma, the third hurricane of the devastating 2005 season and one of the most-intense tropical cyclones ever recorded in the Atlantic Basin, was even stronger than Katrina.

Climate scientists have reached a consensus that natural disasters are becoming more frequent and more intense due to climate change in North America, according to the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). As floods, hurricanes and wildfires rage across the United States, the number of people exposed to this type of trauma will continue to climb. 

Though Lopes now lives in Washington D.C., where severe storms like hurricanes are rare, he still carries a seed of fear about natural disasters, he said,15 years after he endured Wilma and watched his family, friends and neighbors struggling to survive the storm.

Riding out the storm

Lopes’s family decided to stay in their house and not leave Florida during the storm because they thought the storm would not be that severe. Instead of weakening as it approached South Florida, though, Wilma strengthened. As the hurricane arrived that Monday morning, their windows shattered and the lights went out.

“Since our house was shuttered, the only sense that we had of what was happening outside was sound,” Lopes said. “The wind has a terrifying howl and it only intensifies as the direction changes… you can feel that the shutters are trying to rip off the wall.” 

Then, the eye of the hurricane arrived. Suddenly, there was no more rain or wind and people went outside to assess the damage ahead of the second half of the storm, like an intermission in a movie just before the climactic conclusion. 

“It is so wild that you can step outside in a Category 3 or 4 hurricane and just look at how much stuff is destroyed,” Lopes said. 

The Lopes home had not fared well: The roof was missing many tiles, and the family feared the second half of the storm might tear it off completely. As the tail end of Wilma hit, the water was also cut off, and the family had to leave their home, like tens of thousands of others in the area. 

Being a high school kid and having to leave everything behind and evacuate not knowing what was going to happen next was traumatizing, Lopes said. “I believe that the hurricane itself lasted eight hours, but the effects of it lasted well over two weeks,” due to the loss of power and water, he said.

The Lopes family had thought they were well prepared. They’d boarded up the house, had extra supplies, and didn’t think the hurricane would be that big a deal, he said. 

Seeing their fortunes change so quickly and unexpectedly planted a seed of fear in Lopes that lasts to this day. He still stockpiles supplies such as batteries, water and other necessities so that he’s prepared for any disaster. 

In the years since Wilma hit, Lopes graduated from college at George Washington University and is pursuing a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. He also works as membership manager at Destination DC, a non-profit marketing and tourism organization in Washington, D.C.

Editor’s note: Anura Sharma is an 11th grade student at Columbia Heights Educational Campus in Washington, D.C. She was a participant in the Urban Health Media Project’s fall 2020 workshop “Surviving and Thriving Despite Trauma” held in fall 2020, which was funded by The National Council for Behavioral Health (www.thenationalcouncil.org).

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