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Recovery After a Disaster

Disasters have a clear beginning and end, but recovery can last a long time after the dust settles. But how do we as individuals, families, and communities respond to the enormous upheaval that comes with a major emergency? How can we ensure that our homes and businesses are safe, our families are cared for, and that we’re asking for help in the right places? How do we help ourselves and those around us cope?

The smoke is clearing, the water is receding, and the ground is still. The threat, whatever it was, has passed. You have your kit, your family, and maybe a pet or two… now what?

Where to Start

Keep your focus small at first and concentrate on taking care of your family. If you are not together at the time of the emergency, follow your emergency plan to meet up. If you did not have an emergency plan, or if something particularly unexpected happened, head to your home. In most cases school age children will be kept at the school building until a parent or guardian arrives, so if you have children, head straight to the school.

Hand holding a compass

Credit: Heidi Sandstrom on StockSnap

If you need to leave your home before everyone has returned, perhaps to take someone for medical care, or to get away from a fire, leave a note or signal for anyone else returning to let them know where to go. Only do this if it is safe. Let your neighbours know where you are going too, in case the note is not found.

Assess Your Resources

Once everyone is together and safe, look outward. If the emergency was far-reaching there should be recovery resources, or even a recovery centre. Keep an eye out for the following organizations:

  • Emergency Social Services (ESS) volunteers are trained to support those in need through reception centres. They will also sometimes run group lodgings when other options are unavailable. Consider signing up with your local ESS organizations before an emergency to be a part of this essential service.
  • Provincial Housing organizations (BC Housing for example) can usually provide cots and blankets and facilitate short- and long-term housing for evacuees.
  • Canadian Red Cross offers family reunification services and collects donations for disaster relief.
  • Salvation Army provides disaster relief and emotional support services.
  • Provincial Disaster Financial Assistance may be available to owners of small businesses, home owners, tenants, farm operations, and not-for-profit organizations. These programs can assist with repairs and recovery from property damage related to a disaster. This is often only available if losses were not insurable, or if other programs are not available.

Promote Health and Routine

Recovering from an emergency is not just a financial process of rebuilding and gathering resources. Learning to cope, emotionally and mentally, is a massive component too. It can take years just to feel back to normal again after a major upheaval. It can be especially difficult for children to adjust.

As the situation allows, do your best to eat healthy meals, exercise, drink plenty of water, and get plenty of sleep. Achieving all of these goals can be challenging at the best of times, but all help to maintain strong health. Learn to recognize the signs of post-disaster stress in yourself and those around you. Talk over your experiences together, or with a professional if you are struggling. Show understanding and compassion whenever possible.

Tooth brushes and toothpaste

Returning to your old routines will also help things feel back to normal and can be especially beneficial for children and pets. Some things will likely be impossible but do what you can to find alternatives that fill a similar role. For example, schools may be closed but you might ask your child to read, or practice what they were learning before the upheaval.

Attend any debriefing sessions happening in your community. These sessions provide opportunities to learn about resources, and often have support services present. They are a great place to ask any questions you may have about moving forward too.

Monitor your own health as well as those around you. If you need a break, take it. If you need help, ask for it. You are not a burden, and you’ll help them too when you are able. Stay with family and friends for a few days if possible to expand your social security net and support.

Coming Home

When you return home after an emergency, keep an eye out for animals in and around your home. Stray pets and wildlife will be unpredictable and potentially dangerous. Never try to approach, corner, or rescue a wild animal. If you find a dead animal, contact the authorities to ask for direction. Carcasses can be sources for disease so it is important to be cautious.

Keep a radio in your emergency kit or use the one in your car to monitor a local station. They’ll broadcast news and updates as they become available. This will also be one of the best places to learn about community gatherings, reception centres, or the path of a disaster (like a fire).

Walk around your home before entering and keep an eye out for hazards. Do not enter your home if you smell gas, if floodwater remains around the building, the home has shifted off its foundation (even if it’s only a little bit), or if there is fire damage. If you have any doubts about the safety of your home shelter in place until an inspector can make an assessment.

Assess Losses

Many emergencies like fires, floods, and earthquakes, can leave unstable buildings in their wake. Shelter in place or go to a reception centre until you know if your home is safe. Listen to first responders and local authorities for instructions on any special precautions that you might need to take before entering a building.

A Heavily Damaged House

Credit: Paulbr75 on Pixabay

Once you have a solid understanding of how well your home did, or did not, survive the emergency, contact your insurance company to start a claim. If the disaster was widespread there could be a long wait while the company works through an overwhelming number of claims, so file early and be patient. List all the items and property you have lost to help you with insurance, and to prioritize replacement. This may take a while and will likely be an emotional experience. Hang in there and trade off with a partner or take breaks as required.

Home inspectors will be in high demand after an emergency but do your best to book one. The inspector will be able to verify the safety and damage done to your home and will able to provide guidance on next steps.

Keeping Safe

Chances are, the world will look a little different after an emergency. There may be broken glass, downed power lines, and other health risks to contend with. Luckily, there’s lots we can do to keep safe.

One of the most important things after an emergency is disposing properly of waste. This helps to contain outbreaks of disease and keeps germs away from water sources that some people may choose to rely on.

As we mentioned above, emergencies are a very high stress scenario. Stress can lead to many physical health problems, and serious mental health issues. As you move about an emergency be careful to avoid exhaustion. Make a list, set priorities and be sure to pace yourself.

Avoid environmental dangers created by the disaster: broken glass, downed power lines, contaminated buildings, contaminated water or air, gas leaks, slippery floors, exposed wiring, dead animals, smoldering debris, washed-out roads, or obviously unstable buildings. Wear sturdy shoes and work gloves (keep a pair with your emergency kit) and alert authorities if you spot these dangers.

After working with debris, and before handling food of any kind, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly. When packing your emergency supplies be sure to include soap and/or hand sanitizer. If you want to go the extra mile look for biodegradable soap that is safe to dump into your green spaces.

Emotional Responses to Disasters

Everyone handles disasters a little differently, but there are some behaviours that are very common. Learning to look out for these can help you to assess a situation and understand your own reactions.

Remember to watch out for these reactions in first responders and community volunteers as well. They are likely going through similar stresses to you so be kind. Physical and emotional care is important for everyone, no matter their role in an emergency.

First Reactions

  • Disbelief and shock
  • Disorientation and numbness
  • Fear
  • Reluctance to abandon property
  • Problems with concentration or memory
  • Difficulty in making decisions
  • Need for help and information
  • Helpfulness to others.

Later Responses

  • Frustration and anxiety
  • Anger and suspicion
  • Moodiness and irritability
  • Apathy and depression
  • Unexplained crying
  • Fatigue, low energy
  • Change in appetite
  • Digestive problems
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Headaches, body pain
  • Feelings of powerlessness
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Guilt for survival or for not preventing disaster
  • Isolation from family and friends.

Common Responses by Children

Children and pets will often react differently to an emergency than adults. Understanding the scope of what has happened can be especially difficult for them, and their fears and insecurities will manifest in a variety of ways:


  • Return to past behaviour such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting
  • Clinging to parents, crying or screaming
  • Reluctance to go to bed
  • Nightmares
  • Fantasies that the disaster didn’t happen
  • Refusal to attend school
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Withdrawal, immobility


  • Unusually nervous or fearful
  • Sensitivity to noise or storms
  • Excessive protectiveness
  • Increased aggression


For adults, the process for emotional healing after a disaster is simple, if not easy. Discuss what happened, listening carefully to each person and not interrupting. Consider limiting your family’s exposure to media coverage of the event, especially if the emergency was graphically intense (many casualties for example).

Take time to grieve and give yourself permission to rest when you need it. Recognize that you have suffered a loss (even if that loss is normality) and be patient with yourself. Take time to appreciate what you still have.


Helping Children Heal

Encourage your children to share and express themselves, especially through play or physical activities. When they do choose to confide in you, listen carefully and take what you are told seriously. Reassure them often and give plenty of hugs.

A parent and child hugging

Credit: Pezibear on Pixabay

When it is safe to do so, include kids in clean up activities. This helps them to feel included, useful, and like they are helping things to get back to normal. For the same reasons, try to introduce aspects of their old routines, or if that’s not possible, new routines for day-to-day activities.

Children may display immature behaviour, or backslide a little in their development after a disaster. This is normal. Do not draw attention to this behaviour. Instead, praise them when they help with chores or act like their old selves. Anxious children may prefer to sleep in a pup tent or under a table draped with a table cloth. If regressive behaviours last longer than 2 weeks, seek professional help.

Pets may be aggressive or nervous after a disaster. Teach your children to give animals space and that they might not be a good place to seek comfort until they are back to normal.

We’d like to say a big thank you to the BC CRD for putting all this information in one easy and convenient workbook, available for free online, or at many of the provinces fire and municipal halls.

Thank you for reading!

This article was written by Zenia Platten – Author of Tethered and emergency preparedness professional.


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