Nine years ago, the city I live in was hit by the deadliest tornado in American history. It was an EF-5 tornado nearly a mile wide, and it traveled across the entire city from west to east. It killed 158 people, injured thousands, and damaged the property of nearly every person I knew.
For years afterward, the tornado affected each day of Joplinites’ lives in some way or another – so much so that it seemed to be the only thing anyone talked about. What people didn’t talk about, however, was the emotional damage inflicted upon the children who lived through it. No one realized that living through such a catastrophic natural disaster would affect how these kids would process stress for the rest of their lives.
As an educational worker in the Joplin school district, I’ve been able to see firsthand just how much damage was actually done, and how it has affected them over time. Even the children who weren’t old enough to remember the actual day of the tornado still remember the anxiety that families felt for years past it.
My own daughter was 18 days old when it hit.
She doesn’t remember me crouching in a laundry room south of town or clutching her to my chest. She doesn’t remember me crying and pleading with God to keep her safe. She doesn’t remember me watching the devastation on the news after the tornado had rescinded while everyone around me stared in silence.
She couldn’t possibly remember any of those things, but she does remember growing up with a mama who was absolutely terrified every time the clouds turned gray. She, too, became anxious and fearful whenever rainy days popped up. Because if mom is scared, things must be REALLY bad. Parents never get scared!
My daughter has also grown up her entire life hearing adults talk about the tornado here. She’s heard us explain how she was born at the hospital two weeks before it was ripped to shreds. She’s learned in school that her elementary school was built on the foundation where the hospital once was. She’s written papers about the tornado, watched news stories about businesses being rebuilt, and heard firsthand accounts retold from a hundred different perspectives.
She has secondhand trauma from living in this city and being around people who freak out every time spring rolls around. Regardless of what she remembers, the anxiety has been instilled in her from an early age.
Guess how her and all of her peers are feeling right now as they hear panic swirling around about the Covid-19 outbreak? Can you imagine how this has triggered PTSD symptoms in a lot of the older kids who DO remember the tornado?
That feeling everyone in Joplin got as the dark wall cloud approached… that’s the same feeling these kids have lived with for the past month of quarantine. They can all feel the virus coming. They see people preparing, hunkering down, murmuring.
And now that there are actual confirmed cases in our city? It gives the same feeling as when the tornado sirens started blasting and the air started swirling around Joplin.
Even the kids who haven’t been directly told about the confirmed cases of Covid-19 still know their schools have been called off for the next month. They see their parents panicking. They see people wearing masks. They see the empty shelves.
Soon, the funnel cloud will start picking up cars and hurtling them toward buildings. People we know personally will start getting sick (maybe even dying) from this illness, and we’ll all be back in the survival mindset that came after the tornado. Even the kids.
Living through something like the Joplin tornado causes a unique type of anxiety in children when a new disaster looms overhead. They recognize the shift in their parents’ attitudes more quickly than other children, and they know just how bad a “natural” disaster can get. Many of them have seen horrors with own eyes that even adults had trouble processing. These kids know how unprotected human beings really are against the atrocities of the world.
They no longer get to live with the fairytale notion that their parents can protect them from everything–might’ve never gotten that chance, honestly–and now they’re looking down the barrel of another gun.
When you interact with children who’ve grown up in Joplin (or in other places that have experienced disasters, such as New Orleans), please remember that they’re living in emotional survival mode. Even if you don’t “inform” them. Even if you try to protect them. Even if they don’t exhibit the typical signs of stress.
Be gentle with them.