If you’ve lived in Oklahoma long enough, you likely are used to the coverage of dangerous spring weather, eyes peeled on the television or Internet as meteorologists fervently warn about the possibility of damaging storms.
For many Oklahomans, this spring’s severe weather season has arrived with some unexpected feelings. Weather anxiety is rampant after the devastation of last year’s deadly tornadoes.
Gayla and Carl Gibson, who weathered the May 20 tornado that ravaged Moore, are among the Oklahomans who now suffer from weather-induced anxiety.
They live within a few blocks of Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven third-graders died.
When the tornado hit, Carl Gibson was at home, laid up after back surgery. Despite the pain medication, he was able to think straight and went for cover. After the freight train sound roared by, he stepped out and realized just how lucky he’d been that the worst damage to their house was a buckled fence. Everywhere around him was utter devastation.
Shortly afterward, the Gibsons started experiencing feelings of high anxiety and panic attacks.
“We didn’t know what it was at first, but we both developed panic attacks. Those eventually got easier and cleared up and pretty much stopped completely. But then as this spring rolled around, I’ve had a couple of them. They’re cropping up again,” Gayle Gibson said.
What the couple is experiencing is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, said Terry Blaine, a mental health expert for the American Red Cross.
“Some people may have anxiety where it’s hard to breathe, hard to sleep, you even feel like crying a lot,” Blaine said.
When Gayla Gibson has a full-blown panic attack, she feels a need to flee, to run as fast as she can away from the panic, she said. Her doctor prescribed a sedative to handle the anxiety.
For the Gibsons, this was the first time in their 33 years of marriage that the two had no way to get in touch with each other and didn’t know the status of one another. That was the most stressful part of the experience, Gayla Gibson said.
It took hours for her to learn her husband was fine. She was afraid he was asleep during the tornado since his pain medication made him drowsy. Carl Gibson weathered the storm fine physically, along with the family’s three dogs and one cat, but the fear it left is taking longer to repair than their buckled fence.
Weather anxiety can be especially hard for children to deal with because they are less likely to understand where the anxiety comes from.
Angel Beattie, of Union City, took her son, Cody, to a Red Cross preparedness class at his school where he learned about the science of tornadoes, how to stay safe and how to prepare a “go bag” of supplies you may need.
“It’s very important because I worry about tornadoes,” Beattie said in an email interview. “I’ve lived in Oklahoma my whole life and I still worry about them. Now we live in a mobile home, we are blessed with a shelter, but it’s still very scary.”
Taking the preparedness class has helped Cody to not be as fearful, knowing that the family is prepared with supply bags ready to grab in a hurry.
Being as prepared as possible is one good way to deal with weather anxiety, Blaine said.
One thing to avoid is over-indulging in television weather coverage because it can exacerbate weather anxiety, even if storms are nowhere near you, she said. Children generally don’t understand the proximity and likelihood of a tornado hitting their homes, so intense television weather reporters can cause fear.
Blaine prefers a weather radio to television news reports because they are less all-encompassing and stress-filled.
“When it comes to tornadoes...I try not to have the news on too much, but we have to have it on,” Beattie said. “So Cody hears it and so we just have to sit down and read a lot and depend on our smart phones mostly so he doesn’t hear the news. I’m hoping this will help his anxiety go down.”
One of the best ways to handle weather anxiety is to learn as much as possible about the weather and what items you need to have ready in the event of a tornado watch.
Survival kits, plans
Taylor Smith, a community resiliency and recovery specialist with the Red Cross, is coordinating a home kit program in which 6,500 first aid/survival kits will be distributed to people whose homes were in the direct path of last year’s tornadoes.
The time to grab your kit and start implementing your family’s safety plan is when a tornado watch is issued. A watch comes before a warning, though many people aren’t familiar with the difference. A watch means a tornado is possible, a warning means one has been spotted.
Smith, a single mother to four children, has disaster plans for her family for various circumstances. If the children are at their schools, she knows to leave them there because that’s likely where they’ll be safest. If at home alone, her kids know to get in the central-most bathtub with a mattress as cover.
She has told the renters in the two apartments above her ground-floor unit that they are welcome to shelter with her family, since it is safer to be at the lowest level possible.
Preparing yourself and your family for the worst can be the best way to stave off the anxiety that comes with severe weather, Smith said.
If you have a tornado shelter, register it with your municipality so rescuers know to look for you.
If you have pets, make sure you have a large enough travel kennel to house them.