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Surviving Harvey: Nobody actually sleeps through a hurricane

Whether you're a hurricane victim or an emergency responder, do not shortchange yourself sleep: grab a nap at every possible chance.

Sleep, like food and shelter, will be in short supply for many now and in the days and weeks that follow in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Please try to get your sleep when you can, however; sleep is an important ingredient in physical and emotional survival of trauma.

sleeping national guardsman hurricane

There’s an old saying that some people sleep so soundly they can sleep through hurricanes. There’s also a boast among Southerners who opt out of evacuation when a hurricane looms, that a big storm is no big deal, that they will sleep right through it.

But let’s be real. A little rain, a little wind is one thing. But a category 4 hurricane (Harvey now, Katrina 12 years ago) is not just a little rain, a little wind. There’s no sleeping through disaster… or its aftermath.

Surviving Hurricane Harvey…

Survival of a natural disaster involves a lot of different efforts. Evacuation or relocation to a safe place means people are uprooting themselves with little notice. Many wait to see whether storms will reach landfall before deciding to go, as the course of a hurricane can change direction, can broaden or shrink, can let up and be less of a storm than expected. national guard rescues Houston woman during aftermath Hurricane Harvey

It’s easy for those not in the vicinity to judge people who don’t evacuate immediately, but let’s be fair: many who don’t evacuate, or who evacuate late, do so because of limitations (financial, physical—such as hospitalized patients—or logistical).

For instance, a person who does not have a car, or who does not have enough money to fill the tank of a car, is going to struggle in the face of a hurricane because, all common sense aside, they simply have little choice.

For those who do evacuate, even with some lead time, they can struggle to pack the right items.

Children may forget or not have enough time to collect comfort items, pets may be inadvertently left behind, adults may not think to collect medical therapies like CPAP machines or medicines, or know what to do with those that need refrigeration.


For those who had to leave behind their PAP therapy in a rush to evacuate, please contact the CPAP Assistance Program (CAP) of the American Sleep Apnea Association (ASAA), as they are prepared to provide as many new or gently used units to hurricane victims as they are able. Medical personnel who have multiple patients who need PAP therapy may also contact the CAP via ASAA to arrange drop shipments.


… means getting adequate sleep

In any event, the experience of facing dangerous flash floods, flying debris, noxious substances in rising waters, and the appearance of the critically wounded and dead (including pets and livestock, as well as people) is enough to ensure that nobody sleeps during a hurricane or afterward. And it may be that they won’t be sleeping well for a long time.

These are the conditions that make post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) a likely outcome for many who’ve made it through Hurricane Harvey thus far. And with PTSD comes problems with anxiety that can steal sleep by way of nightmares and insomnia.

children PTSD trauma Hurricane Harvey

We can learn from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that lawlessness, intolerable weather without air conditioning, lack of drinkable water, and untreatable injuries and infections in the wake of the storm are certain to be a part of Harvey’s future as it doubles back on itself, dumps more rain, and resets its course toward Louisiana.

We can also learn from Katrina that without sleep, people can make poor decisions, have emotional breakdowns, and become victims of accidents and mistakes that occur because they are sleep deprived.

While people for the time being must find a safe haven, clothes and shoes that are clean and dry, adequate nutrition and water, they must also strive to get good sleep at every opportunity.

  • Those who are out in the water helping with rescues must take some time to sleep or they may endanger themselves by losing their physical strength and ability to focus. Fatigue and exhaustion can aggravate trauma experienced during this time, as well.
  • Those who are working in the emergency shelters may be well trained to do so, but that doesn’t make them superhuman: EMTs, field nurses, firefighters, National Guard troops, and other emergency responders all must get their sleep so they can best serve their communities.
  • Children and the elderly will also better weather the storm emotionally and physically if they can nap and find solid sleep at night to defend against anxiety and stress.

I know… Easy for us to say “get your sleep”

It may seem that sleep is the least urgent of needs to be met during times of disaster. Urgency means foregoing sleep in order to reach high ground, finding emergency help in critical situations where loves ones are hurt or trapped, and having nowhere to turn to escape the images of flooding, devastation, and loss of life.

path of hurricane harvey texas louisiana

But when those who make it through the first few days of the storm finally get a break, they need to take it. Sleep can do so much to help us weather these storms. It can:

  • heal physical and emotional trauma
  • restore one’s physical strength and immune system
  • bolster one’s energy during the day
  • improve one’s emotional adaptability to fluid and uncertain conditions
  • strengthen one’s sense of alertness during times of high stress

These are all things people in the path of Hurricane Harvey will need in order to push forward as the days ahead promise more and worse before the situation gets any better.

Please get your sleep whenever you are able, even if it’s only in dribs and drabs. That will be just as important to your long-term survival as bottled water, food rations, emergency blankets, and the Red Cross.

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