In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma, once there was some phone contact, I got a simple however audaciously radical request from Phoebe Atkinson for a dear colleague whose beautiful Island of St. Martens in the Caribbean had experienced significant loss of lives and left the island demolished of homes and shelter. Our Positive Psychology colleague was asking us, “Is there a Positive Psychology Toolkit for Natural Disasters?” Normally this is something I could rattle off easily, which would include videos, YouTube, books, and articles, and even an open email chain for connection and sharing – but alas, this was useless. We had none of that available. This really got me thinking and paying attention to what/who was helping me/others in these catastrophic scary times. Everything is surreal. You’re exhausted, your brain is off, and time exists in tiny little sound bites of what’s the next thing I must do? Hurricane Irma reduced us to Maslow’s basic bottom needs in the Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid (1943): Physiological needs (food, water) and Safety (security and safety). I am sure everyone has their own individual needs in their toolkit but here is what I came up with as mine:

1.IT’S ALWAYS BEST TO START AT THE BEGINNING (lessons from the Wizard of Oz). Contact me/us any way you can and let us know you are there and care. Please don’t ask me “What’s wrong?” because the experience is so overwhelming that I don’t have the words to express it. While I may not be very responsive, it means the world to hear from you and know I am not alone. When all communication options are crashed it’s isolating and scary. We weren’t offered a choice about this journey but having you with us on the yellow brick road makes it doable and reconnects us with life beyond… this too shall pass.
Some little personal toiletries are great: soap, shampoo, conditioner, skin lotion, bug spray, candy, and yes, chocolate always works.
Somatic and emotional needs are where it’s at – just come and be with us/me.

2. THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME (lessons from the Wizard of Oz). Whether we stayed or evacuated for the Hurricane, we must return and realize RUNNING AWAY IS NOT THE ANSWER (Lessons from the Wizard of Oz). We must confront the situation and figure out what to do. Once home, sometimes we don’t want to leave our homes and see other people.

3. WE NEED TO LEAN ON OUR FRIENDS (lessons from the Wizard of Oz). None of us could succeed in this without help from our friends- to chain saw, rake, move debris, or just hold our hand. Show up at our house (if you are able) with a hug, water, fruit, anything. Bring an ice chest and ice if you can because we have no power and it’s very hot. Wet cool wash rags are great for cooling down while working too.
If you have time and are able ask, “What can I do to help you? Give me a job.”

4. ACCEPT YOUR FRIENDS/YOURSELF FOR WHO THEY ARE AND BE KIND (lessons from the Wizard of Oz) Realize I am in trauma and not my usual self – I am quiet, disconnected- and I may not be able to tell you what I want or need. As well, I need to accept my friend’s limitations for who they are in trauma and pain too. Don’t compare or evaluate who has more or less damage or loss – it’s all subjective and really far more about the meaning than the content or stuff. It is so easy to be disappointed when you are so raw. Look around and see what needs to be done. Water? Ice? Take debris/garbage to the street?
Ask if I am alone and/or have anyone to be with at night? Offer me a place to stay or come stay with me so I won’t be alone.

6. ALWAYS MAKE TIME FOR SOME HA-HA-HA’S AND WOWS (lessons from the Wizard of Oz). Share normal life stories, even small jokes that remind you there is a larger picture and this too shall pass. Don’t miss the magical moments of awe, wonder and gratitude when strangers show up to help you for hours, bring you a cold drink, sit and talk with you in the middle of all the debris and chaos. They are for sure holding your heart while it is so heavy.

7. EVERYONE IS SCARED SOMETIMES, BUT REAL COURAGE IS FACING THOSE FEARS (lessons from the Wizard of Oz). When I am crying, which can happen at any time, just be with me quietly without commenting or demanding words. Lots of grieving – recognizable and disenfranchised grieving I cannot explain to you.

8. IT TAKES COMMITMENT TO ACHIEVE YOUR GOALS (lessons from the Wizard of Oz). Realize the hurricane is short lived; the aftermath is months and years! Our visual world no longer looks or is the same. It is disorienting. The Aftermath goes on a long, long, long time. We wait for roofers, adjusters, handymen, insurance appraisers, checks to help us regain our lives. It’s an odd combination of both surrender and commitment.
What I realize in writing this is, no fancy stuff here… just the ART OF BEING WITH.

9. NEVER GIVE UP (even when those wicked winged monkeys keep appearing). My goals each day are small and concrete: get as much sleep as I can; fill at least two bags with debris and carry them to the street; and be grateful as many times a day as I can. Force myself to have some human contact beyond my house and work.

It’s a slow walk from PTSD and what is now being called “Disaster mental health” down and around the yellow brick road to regain balance as well as some well-earned things only you can learn from these experiences. If I can embody Glinda’s magic, Dorothy’s hope, determination and kindness, and the magic of my own red shoes… and with the help of all of you… I know in time I will find my way home.


Dr. Nancy Kirsner, PhD, TEP, CPP, MFT, OTR, PA is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Miami, Florida where she has maintained a private practice since 1973. She has 40+ years experience in mental health in many different roles including Occupational Therapist, Art Therapist and Counseling Psychologist, and has acted as a consultant and staff trainer for The Miami Veterans Center therapists giving direct support to our returning veterans. In 1997, Dr. Kirsner developed and implemented action research on a newly created psychodrama program for adult females with a history of childhood sexual abuse and in 2003 established the South Florida Center for Psychodrama Action Training & Group Works which continues to this day.