How Natural Disasters Impact Meteorologists

Scientists reporting on severe weather can get hit hard by emotions, flashbacks and even nightmares.
Emilie Lorditch, Staff Writer

(Inside Science) -- It’s understandable that first responders like police, EMTs and firefighters might suffer some trauma after working through a natural disaster, or saving victims from wildfires or an earthquake. But what about meteorologists? They’re often left helpless watching severe weather, like a tornado, unfold and causing havoc in their own town.

“I originally started looking into this topic after going through a significant event myself. I worked the April 27, 2011, super outbreak of tornadoes in North Alabama. And I realized after working that event that I wasn’t necessarily equipped to handle the stress and emotional toll that working a major event can take on, that we can experience when we work significant events,” said Christina Crowe, currently serving as Special Advisor to the National Weather Service Director.

“I thought maybe I was the only one who had ever experienced something like that. Maybe that I wasn’t mature enough maybe to deal with these events. It was early on in my career, and maybe I just wasn’t seasoned enough to deal with it. But the more I opened up and talked to other meteorologists, the more I realized a lot of people are dealing with this issue.

“We’re living in that head space for days before the event. Then we work the hours and days of operational response to the event -- issuing warnings, communicating with our partners, hearing the impacts of, as a tornado has hit, where is the damage, how extensive is it. And there’s a lot of adrenaline that’s going on with that, as you’re just keeping focus on the mission and serving people.

“Then you get to the post-event phase, where you’re going out and surveying the damage. And we’re trained as scientists on how to assess the strength of wind damage from a tornado, how to evaluate how much damage occurred at this house and therefore what were the wind speeds. Which is all important for doing research afterwards and helping prepare for the next event.

“But we don’t train people on how to deal with the walking up to a house that you have to survey and there’s a family picking through the rubble. How do you relate to them while also trying to get the science done? And there -- I’ve always been surprised on surveys of how much people just want to share their story. And so many of them are so excited to meet the meteorologist who maybe worked the event to help warn them, they got to their shelter.

“You hear the stories of the fear and the hope and the survival over and over and over again as you do the survey. So, you’re not only dealing with your own emotions, but the people that you see, that you’re dealing with -- their emotions coming at you.

“Because we live in the communities we serve, and some forecasters can be at the office while their family is at home taking shelter from a tornado. For me I think a lot of what I would want to do going into the next event is making sure that I’m taking care of myself.

“So, I think it’s even just simple things like making sure I’m eating well and sleeping well and getting exercise and taking breaks. Stepping away from the weather, stepping away from the meteorology and kind of letting my mind have a break from it.

“Because we can so easily get wrapped up in serving the communities, serving our partners, that we forget that we’re humans first and recognizing that need to take care of ourselves so that we can continue to serve in the next event,” concluded Crowe.

Author Bio & Story Archive

Emilie Lorditch is the former Assistant News Director at AIP.