Resource Corner Blog

The Impact of Natural Disasters | Chaos After the Storm


I just graduated from college. I’m trying to figure out how to be a real adult and what a 401K is. But there’s a voice in the back of my mind reminding me that there are bigger problems and something is wrong with our world. That voice is talking about the disasters that have overwhelmed us these past few months- the hurricanes, wildfires, and more. For a young adult who was taught that anything can be fixed if you work hard enough, realizing that there’s little that can be done to stop these disasters is terrifying.

When these disasters strike, the focus is often drawn to the quantifiable damage. How many buildings were destroyed or how many lives were lost dominate the news coverage. Each of these aspects deserves the attention they’re given, but there’s another aspect that’s often forgotten. The emotional impact the trauma has on the victims can often be overlooked.

I work at TenEleven, a company that works closely with the behavioral health world. I read about trauma, I understand trauma informed care. When that voice in the back of my mind talks about the disasters, I can’t help but wonder if there are behavioral health professionals there to help. Or are they also hurting? I see pictures of the physical damage. I see organizations collecting donations to send to victims. But you can’t package trauma informed care and send it to someone.

I wanted to learn more: what are the types of disasters, what does the impact of natural disasters really look like, what type of care is needed.

Natural vs. Human Disasters

In order to better explain the traumatic effects, I’m going to categorize disasters as either natural or man-made. Natural disasters are caused by the environment and include tsunamis, mudslides, severe snowstorms, etc. With natural disasters, it is impossible to blame anyone (other than Mother Nature). Due to modern technology, there is often advance warning. This warning makes it possible for people to better prepare for the upcoming disaster and can help to minimize damages. But often these preparations seem not to matter which lends to frustrations that no amount of preparation makes a difference.

Examples of man-made disasters include increasingly common events like school shootings and terrorist attacks. Typically, it is possible to place the blame for these types of disaster onto a specific person or persons. There is no warning for these disasters. Because there is no warning and there is someone to blame, man-made disasters cause more distress than natural disasters and can take longer to recover from.

For the purpose of this post, I’m going to focus on natural disasters.

Phases of Disaster

I recently watched a webinar from the National Council for Behavioral Health called When Disaster Strikes:  Promoting Resilience through Prevention, Preparation and InterventionAs I was watching, I was surprised to learn that there are multiple phases of disaster. Initially, I had thought that disasters happened and then communities recovered. This is not the case. In actuality, this process is complex, lengthy, and emotional. The graphic below from the California Department of Mental Health illustrates this.

Each of the phases in the graphic is characterized by different emotions and struggles.

  • Pre-Disaster: During this phase, people prepare for the disaster to strike. The risk of trauma rises as the disaster approaches and stress levels rise.
  • Impact: The disaster hits and victims enter survival mode.
  • Heroic: Immediately after the disaster ends, there is an outpouring of love and support. It is during this phase that you hear stories about acts of heroism, of people going above and beyond to help those around them. There is still shock and grief associated with the trauma, but these heroic stories receive a lot of attention.
  • Honeymoon: The heroic phase reaches its peak in the honeymoon phase. There is a sense of community cohesion in this phase. This is when the resources are the most abundant and everyone is willing to help. There is a sense of camaraderie among the victims.
  • Disillusionment: As the honeymoon phase ends, the affected community enters the disillusionment stage. This was the phase I didn’t realize existed before watching this webinar, and I think many others are unaware of as well. It is during this phase that victims suffer the lowest of their emotional lows. In some cases, victims can feel abandoned. They were receiving so much love and support from their wider community, and slowly that support was directed elsewhere even though they’re still struggling. This phase is also categorized by many highs and lows as the victims attempt to heal and experience multiple trigger events.
  • Reconstruction: Around the one year anniversary of the event, the community enters the reconstruction phase. This phase begins with an emotional low during the anniversary of the disaster. The community then slowly begins to move upward, with setbacks, as they continue along their healing process.

The Aftermath of Disaster

The impact of a disaster can be separated into physical and emotional aftermaths.

Physical Aftermaths

Natural disasters leave a physical impact. Homes are destroyed and their inhabitants must move in with friends/family or to a shelter. Businesses are also affected. While some can resume operations and lend aid, others are not. This has a severe negative effect on the economy as well.

The environment is also impacted. Trees and other foliage are uprooted, causing more damage, or being wrecked completely. It can take an environment years to recover after a traumatic event.

Emotional Aftermaths

In addition to trying to pick up the physical pieces post-disaster, victims suffer from server emotional trauma with varied side effects.

Victims can develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or retrigger it from an earlier episode. Many victims of disaster also suffer from depression or anxiety as a result of what they experienced. In order to cope, some may turn to substance abuse and develop subsequent health issues.

Violent acts increase in the aftermath of disaster as well. In some cases, a victim’s entire life has been overturned. They are experiencing a myriad of feelings including fear, shock, anger, hopelessness, and helplessness. Some turn to violence to cope and attempt to regain some sense of control.

This intensity and complexity found in a disaster’s aftermath results in an increased and desperate need for trauma informed care and behavioral health professionals.

My dad’s an educator and I was always taught that the first step to solving a problem is learn about it. In learning about disasters and their aftermath, I’ve realized this issue is far more complex than I originally assumed. I’ve also found a large number of articles on the topic which assured me that others are questioning the mental health care provided to victims of natural disasters as well. This issue is by no means resolved, but steps are being taken in the right direction.

I’m still working on understanding the 401K though…I’ll keep you posted.

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