First responders working to address the mental health toll of Hurricane Ian

First responders working to address the mental health toll of Hurricane Ian.
Published: Oct. 6, 2022 at 5:26 PM EDT

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - As Florida picks up the pieces after Hurricane Ian, many are working to process the emotional toll this disaster has taken.

Storm victims--and the first responders who help them--can suffer PTSD for years after a major disaster.

Tallahassee search and rescue teams working in Lee County are doing what they can to comfort people in these difficult times.

Jarvis Bedford, the leader of the Tallahassee Fire Department’s Task Force 7, says although their main purpose is to search and rescue, they also try to provide as much emotional support to people as they can--even if it’s something as small as a simple hug.

The Tallahassee crew of about two dozen working in Lee County has been there for nine days and will stay for a full two weeks.

Bedford says they’re meeting people on some of the worst days of their lives--people who are returning to their homes for the first time since Ian and finding complete devastation.

“One of the things we try to do is just comfort these individuals,” Bedford said. “Because, at this time, there are so many unknowns. They have no idea what to do next. We’re able to give them some information, but even more than that, we do our best to do whatever we can to comfort them.”

Mental health challenges can linger long after a storm like Ian has passed.

In a study done after Hurricane Katrina, nearly half of the survivors that researchers polled showed symptoms of PTSD, even seven years after the storm hit.

The Tallahassee task force is also working with the 2nd Alarm Project, an organization created after Hurricane Michael to help support first responders’ mental health.

“In order to serve these communities, and in order to do this incredibly difficult and challenging work, they have to stay at the top of their game,” 2nd Alarm Project director Kellie O’Dare said. “And what that means is that their level of resiliency has to be very high.”

O’Dare says the 2nd Alarm Project has been working with TFD for the last three years to help firefighters develop this high level of resiliency and teach them how to cope with extremely stressful situations.

There are also five mental health strike teams from across the state deployed to Lee County.

Each team includes peer counselors and chaplains whose purpose is to support emergency team members’ mental health as they respond to the hurricane.