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Managing Emotions During Tornado Cleanup and Other Disasters

This has been an active year for tornadoes. Over the last few months, these violent storms have killed at least 31 people in the U.S. and caused billions of dollars in damage. May was particularly intense, when over the course of 13 straight days, the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center logged reports of multiple tornadoes occurring throughout the U.S. Among those were four storms that developed within hours of each other near Springfield, Illinois, where they caused widespread tree, power pole and power line damage, tossed vehicles from roadways and destroyed numerous structures. Fortunately, there were no reports of injuries, but Springfield and its neighbors lie in the section of the U.S. known as “Tornado Alley” and frequently experience worse. For example, a rare wintertime tornado with winds over 155 mph that struck the town of Taylorville damaged hundreds of buildings and injured at least 26 people, two of them seriously.

Members of the Laborers’ Disaster Response Team assist in tornado cleanup in Taylorville, Illinois

“It’s shocking mentally. You grieve and feel for all of these families,” said Brad Schaive, the Business Manager for Springfield-based Laborers’ Local 477 and the Director of the Laborers’ Disaster Response Team (LDRT), which dispatched more than 70 volunteers to help with cleanup in Taylorville. Comprised of members from LIUNA Local 477, LIUNA Local 670, other nearby labor unions and businesses with professional expertise in removing debris from construction and demolition sites, the LDRT volunteers its services in the immediate aftermath of a tornado. Members specialize in removing trees from homes and private property so utility companies and other essential personnel can access the disaster area. The LDRT is often the first responder on the scene.

“Most municipalities clear roadways, but they don’t come to homes. We do that at no cost to anyone,” said Schaive of a service that can save families thousands of dollars and start them on the recovery process. “It’s a trying time, but we’re proud that members of LIUNA can be there to assist a family.”

LDRT members train throughout the year so that when a tornado strikes, they know how to quickly mobilize and what to do to minimize the risk for injuries. With violent weather becoming more common throughout the U.S. and Canada, it’s an approach to disaster cleanup that other areas may want to consider. Tornado cleanup is hazardous and the risks to safety and health, both physical and mental, must be identified, evaluated and controlled to reduce the likelihood of a person being injured. According to OSHA, physical hazards associated with tornado cleanup include:

  • Hazardous driving conditions due to slippery and/or blocked roadways
  • Slips and falls due to slippery walkways
  • Falling and flying objects such as tree limbs and utility poles
  • Sharp objects including nails and broken glass
  • Electrical hazards from downed power lines or downed objects in contact with power lines
  • Falls from heights
  • Burns from fires caused by energized line contact or equipment failure
  • Fatigue from working extended shifts
  • Heat and dehydration

But it’s not just physical hazards that Laborers and other first responders need to be aware of and prepare for. Cleanup after a tornado or any disaster can take an emotional toll and cause a host of issues that can linger long after cleanup has been completed. These include:

  • Irritability and depression
  • Problems with concentration, sleep or eating issues
  • Physical symptoms such as fatigue, nausea and chest pain

The likelihood for developing any of these issues can be reduced by including stress management in training for tornado cleanup or any disaster recovery work. Participating in exercises and simulations that expose Laborers and other first responders to disaster stressors can strengthen coping skills. This will help them stay emotionally healthy and better able to assist those whose lives have been upended. When actively involved in cleanup work, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends:

  • Limiting working hours to no longer than 12-hour shifts
  • Working in teams
  • Talking to family, friends, supervisors and colleagues about your feelings and experiences
  • Practicing breathing and relaxation techniques
  • Maintaining a healthy diet, adequate sleep and exercise
  • Limiting caffeine and alcohol use
  • Letting workers or volunteers know it’s okay to draw boundaries and say “no”

The LHSFNA has a number of toolbox talks and health alerts designed to help Laborers stay safe during tornado cleanup. Toolbox talks include:

  • Stress Management
  • Electrical Safety: Working Near Overhead Power Lines
  • Slips, Trips and Falls
  • Eye Protection
  • Hand Protection

Health Alerts include:

  • Mold and Fungi
  • Safe Work with Power Saws
  • What Is Depression?
  • Fall Protection

To order these and other Fund materials, go to and click on Publications. You can read more about living and working in tornado-prone areas in our March 2016 article, “Are You Ready for Tornado Season?.”

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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