How to Heal Emotional Trauma After a Climate Disaster
By Jamie Smith Hopkins
Disasters are stressful. Our warming world keeps adding fuel to the fires — and floods and hurricanes, among other calamities. What can be done about the trauma that follows?
The Center for Public Integrity, Columbia Journalism Investigations and our partners in newsrooms around the country have been reporting on this for months. We've learned a lot by asking experts: people who've lived through disasters and the professionals who study this or provide hands-on help. More than 230 shared their experiences in our detailed survey, and we interviewed dozens of additional people.
Be aware. It might seem simplistic, but you're one step ahead if you know that surviving a disaster and dealing with the long aftermath can be hard on mental health. Keep an eye out for symptoms, not just obvious ones like constant worrying or feeling short-tempered, but also trouble sleeping (or oversleeping), overeating (or lack of appetite) and heavy drinking. Remember that kids can feel the impact, too, and that might show up as acting out or trouble in school.
You might notice effects right away. Or they might take a while to surface. Either way, it's normal — and it can linger. Hilton Kelley, whose community of Port Arthur, Texas, was heavily affected by 2017's Hurricane Harvey, sums it up: "It will be years before we get out of this."
Seek support. Most people who took our survey didn't get mental-health services after their disaster experience. Some couldn't afford therapy or other assistance. Some thought they didn't need it, though the emotional challenges a portion of them reported made us wonder if support could have made the hard times more bearable. Some free avenues to try:
- The Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program. States with a qualifying major disaster can tap a federal grant to offer emotional support to residents, usually available for up to a year. You can talk to a counselor by phone or potentially a video-conferencing platform (and pre-COVID, you could meet in person). Counselors won't keep case files on you, and you can access the help multiple times while the program is running. Counselors will try to connect you with local mental-health services if you want more assistance and might also refer you to other sorts of help, such as disaster aid. Most states are running this program amid the pandemic, but you can call the Federal Emergency Management Agency (800-621-FEMA) to find out how to access it.
- The federal Disaster Distress Helpline. It's available round the clock for calls (800-985-5990) and texts (instructions here) in English and Spanish. Counselors offer coping advice and can make referrals to other services.
- General mental-health helplines. Those include ones run by the National Alliance on Mental Illness and local affiliates, the Crisis Text Line and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- Your community. Family, friends, your pastor or other religious leaders, your child's school counselor, neighbors, co-workers — support can come from a variety of places. Other disaster survivors, for instance: They know what you're going through in a way that no one else can.
Our investigation found that many survivors never hear about or receive help from the federal crisis counseling program, the country's main response to the mental-health consequences of disasters. As extreme weather worsens, that puts more pressure on other forms of assistance.
"We don't have enough mental-health providers in all of the country to manage huge, large-scale disasters — nor will people use them," said Dr. Joshua C. Morganstein, assistant director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. "That is why communities and organizations become so important."
Offer help. Some disaster survivors found solace as they assisted others, one way to get some control back in a situation primed to make people feel powerless.
"It helped me to keep my sanity," said Kelley, a restauranteur whose family's post-disaster efforts included cooking gumbo for people in the community.
Solemi Hernandez, a Florida resident whose employer shuttered after Hurricane Irma in 2017 and who searched for weeks for a new job, saw personal benefits from volunteer work. "Losing myself in service to others … is a way I became stable and not as depressed," she said.
Take action. Identifying a problem that caused or worsened the disaster's impacts — and then pressing for fixes — is a key way some survivors bolstered their wellbeing.
Hernandez, a regional coordinator for the Citizens' Climate Lobby, presses for action on global warming, a force multiplier for disasters. Her advice to survivors: "Use that trauma. Turn that trauma and that suffering into being politically active."
Kathleen Sullivan, who lives west of Chicago, doggedly advocated for stormwater-control measures in her city's flood-prone neighborhoods, including hers. Twice her house flooded; two more times she had close calls. It took years, but showing up at city council meetings, organizing with other residents and not letting elected officials ignore the problem got results. It was also a powerful coping mechanism.
"We met all these awesome people we wouldn't have met," said Sullivan, who linked up with Higher Ground, a national flood-survivor group. "And we can sleep now — mostly — when it rains."
Kevin McKinney's neighborhood in Richwood, Texas, south of Houston, weathered Hurricane Harvey. The devastating flood, he said, came four days later. He and hundreds of other neighbors organized, then sued a nearby city whose floodwater diversion efforts, they allege, damaged their homes. That complaint is pending.
"I didn't know which way to turn, I didn't know which way to go. Then you know what? I got it together, and then I got mad," he said. "Not only did I get mad, but 500 other people around here got mad."
As disasters hit with more frequency, communities also face questions about how to organize help in the aftermath. Areas with fewer resources need more support to recover. But too often, studies show, they get less of it instead. Dr. Octavio N. Martinez Jr., executive director of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health in Texas, wants to see that change.
"We ought to have a disaster response strategic plan designed to prioritize the ZIP codes that we know are going to end up suffering the most and are going to have the most difficulty in recuperating," he said.
Prepare for next time. Almost all the survivors we surveyed were concerned more disasters will hit their community. We heard from a lot of people in regions struck by multiple wildfires, floods or hurricanes in the last decade, and some cope with that anxiety by getting prepared.
Kelley built a berm around his house to reduce flood risks. R.L. Miller, whose California community in Ventura County was burned by the Woolsey Fire in 2018, is diligent about clearing brush on her property.
Others are thinking of leaving — or they've already left. A handful of survey respondents said they moved out of their community at least in part to try to avoid another big hurricane, flood or fire.
Whether to stay or go is a fraught decision. It's one that more and more Americans will be forced to confront as climate change worsens — further increasing inequality. Dr. Irwin Redlener with Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness urges communities to get ahead of this.
"We have to prepare for more dramatic changes," he said. "Many places that may be habitable right now may become uninhabitable. … We're just at the beginning of the most serious consequences of unabated climate change."
Hernandez, who lives in Naples, on Florida's Gulf Coast, sees her climate action as one form of long-term prep work. Hurricane Irma, a wildfire in her county in May, local flooding from heavy rain, the increasingly unbearable temperatures in the summer: These are warnings of a future she wants to avert.
"I never thought about moving. I love this place," Hernandez said. "We can do something to save it."
This story originally appeared in The Center for Public Integrity and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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Average monthly sea surface temperature (in degrees Celsius, red scale) and average continental rainfall in South America (in millimeters/month, blue scale) from 1981 to 2016. Sea surface temperatures and precipitation are generally higher around the equator. On the left, the area where El Niño – Southern Oscillation (ENSO) occurs; dotted lines indicate the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) in January and July, responsible for transporting heat and humidity from the oceans around the tropics.
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By Derrick Z. Jackson
Officials at the highest levels are discussing the possibility of caving in on controlling the coronavirus and instead letting it run rampant throughout the United States until we reach "herd immunity," the point where the virus effectively runs out of people to infect. More than 6,200 scientists, health professionals, and research organizations say this is inhumane and have signed a memorandum rejecting herd immunity as a legitimate strategy.
Herd Immunity’s Unacceptable Toll<p>Resumption of normal life in the United States under a herd immunity approach would result in an enormous death toll by all estimates. Former CDC director Tom Frieden <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/tom-frieden-herd-immunity-wrong-solution-coronavirus/2020/10/16/acb4ae8a-0fe6-11eb-8074-0e943a91bf08_story.html" target="_blank">estimates</a> that another 500,000 people would have to die to achieve 60 percent herd immunity. "And that's the best-case scenario," Frieden wrote in a <em>Washington Post</em> op-ed. "The number of deaths to get there could be twice as high."</p><p>Frieden said that is the best-case scenario because no one really knows if the <a href="https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/herd-immunity-and-coronavirus/art-20486808" target="_blank">actual percentage needed</a> to see the virus peter out is to have it <a href="https://thehill.com/opinion/healthcare/521834-covid-19-vaccine-barriers-efficacy-availability-and-acceptability" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">infect</a> more like <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/08/31/herd-immunity-covid-19/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">65, 70,</a> or even <a href="https://www.vox.com/21451282/herd-immunity-explained-covid-19-pandemic" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">75 percent</a> of the population. Even if immunity could be miraculously achieved at 50 percent, an estimate <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41577-020-00451-5" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">published</a> in <em>Nature Reviews Immunology</em> places the range of sacrifice somewhere between 500,000 and 2.1 million deaths.</p><p>That makes it little wonder that Anthony Fauci, the most respected scientist advising the Trump administration on the pandemic, called herd immunity for the coronavirus "total nonsense." Fauci is backed up by the likes of National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, who said herd immunity is a "dangerous" and "fringe" component of epidemiology. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Health <a href="https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/10/20/nation/scores-mass-scientists-doctors-sign-open-letter-against-herd-immunity-proposal/?outputType=amp" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called</a> herd immunity "junk science."</p><p>The head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, <a href="https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19---12-october-2020" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said this month</a> that the only acceptable form of "herd immunity" is achieved through vaccination. "Herd immunity is achieved by protecting people from a virus, not by exposing them to it," the secretary general said. "Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic... Allowing a dangerous virus that we don't fully understand to run free is simply unethical. It's not an option."</p>
Herd Immunity Is the National De Facto Strategy<p>Somehow, none of that has culled herd immunity from being considered as a legitimate approach for fighting COVID-19. Rather, the Great Barrington Declaration has much in common with the Trump administration's approach to the coronavirus, which has led to more people dying from COVID-19 in the United States than in any other nation on Earth.</p><p>A de facto herd immunity approach is the only thing that can explain the push by governors of so many states to <a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/derrick-jackson/the-push-to-relax-covid-19-protections-exposes-age-old-racial-wounds" target="_blank">reopen</a> bars, restaurants, beaches, bowling alleys, and gyms in states even as the virus has raged and case numbers have been increasing. It is the only thing that can explain the federal designation of meatpackers as essential workers and state demands that teachers go back into classrooms despite outbreaks and deaths related to those professions.</p><p>It also explains how so many of the nation's most respected scientific voices have been silenced. Despite the virus's current "uncontrolled spread" in 34 states and Puerto Rico, according to October 21 <a href="https://www.covidexitstrategy.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">tracking</a> by CovidExistStrategy.org, the White House has pushed aside Fauci, Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, and Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.</p><p>In their place, the administration has handed the pandemic podium to <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trumps-den-of-dissent-inside-the-white-house-task-force-as-coronavirus-surges/2020/10/19/7ff8ee6a-0a6e-11eb-859b-f9c27abe638d_story.html?utm_campaign=wp_to_your_health&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_tyh&wpmk=1&pwapi_token=eyJ0eXAiOiJKV1QiLCJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiJ9.eyJjb29raWVuYW1lIjoid3BfY3J0aWQiLCJpc3MiOiJDYXJ0YSIsImNvb2tpZXZhbHVlIjoiNWE1ZDQ3N2M5YmJjMGYyNmNiMTViMmI0IiwidGFnIjoiNWY4ZGZhZmQ5ZDJmZGEwZWZiNGViMzQyIiwidXJsIjoiaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cud2FzaGluZ3RvbnBvc3QuY29tL3BvbGl0aWNzL3RydW1wcy1kZW4tb2YtZGlzc2VudC1pbnNpZGUtdGhlLXdoaXRlLWhvdXNlLXRhc2stZm9yY2UtYXMtY29yb25hdmlydXMtc3VyZ2VzLzIwMjAvMTAvMTkvN2ZmOGVlNmEtMGE2ZS0xMWViLTg1OWItZjljMjdhYmU2MzhkX3N0b3J5Lmh0bWw_dXRtX2NhbXBhaWduPXdwX3RvX3lvdXJfaGVhbHRoJnV0bV9tZWRpdW09ZW1haWwmdXRtX3NvdXJjZT1uZXdzbGV0dGVyJndwaXNyYz1ubF90eWgmd3Btaz0xIn0.MyoXrwQD-PwWqdbb70_JfrI_fxHO0be_O_tpTTMXBgE" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Scott Atlas</a>, a radiologist and conservative pundit with <a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/derrick-jackson/public-wants-science-based-policies-for-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">no background</a> in infectious disease science or epidemiology in measuring disease prevalence. Inhumanely ignoring the more than half of U.S. adults having a pre-existing condition that could compromise them for COVID-19, he blithely praises herd immunity, <a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/derrick-jackson/public-wants-science-based-policies-for-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">saying,</a> "We can allow a lot of people to get infected. Those who are not at risk to die or have a serious hospital-requiring illness, we should be fine with letting them get infected."</p><p>He <a href="https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/521688-birx-confronted-pence-about-atlas" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pooh-poohs</a> expanded testing, saying, "you are destroying the workforce." Twitter recently took down one of Atlas's tweets for falsely claiming, "Masks work? NO" and then lying that the WHO says widespread mask use is "not supported." The first sentence of the WHO's <a href="https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/when-and-how-to-use-masks" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">webpage</a> on masks says, "Masks are a key measure to suppress the spread of COVID-19 and save lives."</p><p>Atlas denies that the White House has a "wide-open strategy of achieving herd immunity." But there's little doubt that the White House is wide open to the idea. Last week, Atlas <a href="https://www.foxnews.com/transcript/trump-adviser-calls-nbc-town-hall-brazen-display-of-media-duplicity" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">appeared</a> on Fox News <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/white-house-touts-document-calling-for-herd-immunity-approach-to-covid-19-crisis-11603051550" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">to say</a> the thrust of the Great Barrington Declaration "is exactly aligned with the president." That was seconded by a senior administration official who <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/covid-herd-immunity/2020/10/10/3910251c-0a60-11eb-859b-f9c27abe638d_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">told reporters</a> in a conference call that the Great Barrington Declaration "is endorsing what the president's policy has been for months."</p><p>The freezing out of scientists on the Coronavirus Task Force reached deep space levels this week (a metaphoric minus 455 degrees Fahrenheit), with multiple buckets of ice dumped on Fauci. Atlas diminished Fauci as "just one person" on the force, offering only a "limited approach." President Trump called Fauci a "disaster," <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-fauci-campaign-biden/2020/10/19/30b2fe58-1226-11eb-82af-864652063d61_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">claiming,</a> "People are tired of hearing Fauci and these idiots, all these idiots who got it wrong."</p>
Many Thousands of Lives Can Still Be Saved<p>Atlas's malpractice already merits his dismissal. He should be forced to step down because his disregard for science will surely lead to incalculable disaster if a herd immunity approach becomes official government policy. Calls for his ouster have already begun even from inside the task force. <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trumps-den-of-dissent-inside-the-white-house-task-force-as-coronavirus-surges/2020/10/19/7ff8ee6a-0a6e-11eb-859b-f9c27abe638d_story.html" target="_blank">According</a> to the <em>Washington Post</em>, Birx went to Vice President Mike Pence to suggest removing Atlas. All Pence reportedly did was ask Birx and Atlas to work out their problems on their own.</p><p>There is no time left for such discord within the task force and for discordant messages to come from the White House on how people should protect themselves from COVID-19. The thousands of scientists and public health professionals who signed the John Snow Memorandum say "it is critical to act decisively and urgently," to launch a "robust" response on the level of New Zealand, Vietnam, or Japan—all of which have shown success in containing the virus and keeping the numbers of cases and deaths relatively low.</p><p>The approach that has been proven effective starts with face coverings and social distancing and reducing the temptation we all will feel during the oncoming winter holidays to have extended family gatherings. Researchers from MIT and the Vancouver School of Economics <a href="https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.05.27.20115139v6.full.pdf" target="_blank">estimate</a> in a working paper that, if the United States had established a national mask mandate in mid-March, between 19,000 and 47,000 lives could have been saved by the end of May. Now that the nation's death toll approaches a quarter million lives lost, and is <a href="https://covid19.healthdata.org/united-states-of-america?view=total-deaths&tab=trend" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">projected</a> to reach nearly 400,000 by February 1, according to the Institutes for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, the institute estimates we could avoid 74,000 new deaths with universal mask use.</p><p>Importantly, masks protect others, including the most vulnerable among us. This week, the <em>Washington Post</em> reported how coronavirus outbreaks among college students partying in unmasked packs in LaCrosse, Wisconsin was found to have <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/10/21/la-crosse-wisconsin-covid-outbreak-nursing-home-deaths/?utm_campaign=wp_to_your_health&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_tyh&wpmk=1&pwapi_token=eyJ0eXAiOiJKV1QiLCJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiJ9.eyJjb29raWVuYW1lIjoid3BfY3J0aWQiLCJpc3MiOiJDYXJ0YSIsImNvb2tpZXZhbHVlIjoiNWE1ZDQ3N2M5YmJjMGYyNmNiMTViMmI0IiwidGFnIjoiNWY5MWU3YjU5ZDJmZGEwZWZiNTE3OGNmIiwidXJsIjoiaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cud2FzaGluZ3RvbnBvc3QuY29tL2hlYWx0aC8yMDIwLzEwLzIxL2xhLWNyb3NzZS13aXNjb25zaW4tY292aWQtb3V0YnJlYWstbnVyc2luZy1ob21lLWRlYXRocy8_dXRtX2NhbXBhaWduPXdwX3RvX3lvdXJfaGVhbHRoJnV0bV9tZWRpdW09ZW1haWwmdXRtX3NvdXJjZT1uZXdzbGV0dGVyJndwaXNyYz1ubF90eWgmd3Btaz0xIn0.6Ep-AvkJkNqGTE08UsekVlNWR01vYzQe-qg5BPruSQM" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">led to 19 deaths so far of people over the age of 60</a>. Before that, the city had gone without a single pandemic death in its nursing homes.</p><p>That is on the heels of the wedding in Millinocket, Maine that resulted in an outbreak that <a href="https://bangordailynews.com/2020/09/19/news/eight-deaths-now-tied-to-millinocket-area-wedding-outbreak-including-seven-at-nursing-home/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">killed eight elderly people</a>, none of whom attended the event, and the 500,000-person Sturgis, South Dakota motorcycle rally that is <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/10/17/sturgis-rally-spread/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">now tied</a> to the massive coronavirus outbreak in the Upper Midwest and Mountain States. The Germain IZA Institute of Labor Economics estimates that the illness generated from the rally <a href="https://www.iza.org/publications/dp/13670/the-contagion-externality-of-a-superspreading-event-the-sturgis-motorcycle-rally-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">will cost</a> the nation $12.2 billion in health care costs.</p><p>Atlas and the proponents of the Great Barrington Declaration have not yet said why this is just fine. That is why they must be unmasked for the charlatans that they are.</p>
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