Hurricanes, COVID-19 and mental health: How disasters affect us

Hurricanes COVID and Mental health 1
In 2017, 50% of Houston-area residents have wrestled with powerful or severe emotional distress since Hurricane Harvey battered the region, according to a Rice University survey. – Illustration by Joanna Eberts/The Texas Tribune

 Part I: The nation isn’t ready



Columbia Journalism Investigations


Center for Public Integrity


(The Texas Tribune) – Barbara Herndon lay in the center of her bed, muscles tensed, eyes on the television. She was waiting for the storm.

All morning on that day in late May, the news had covered the cold front slouching south from Central Texas. By late afternoon, dense ropes of clouds darkened her Houston neighborhood. Rain whipped the windows. Cyclone-force gusts rent open her backyard breaker box. She cringed at the noises, chest tightening, mind on the havoc that might follow – but ultimately didn’t.

Herndon, who as a child in southern Louisiana saw her share of hurricanes and thunderstorms, had never thought much about them. Now, even a passing squall like the May storm – lasting less than an hour – will panic the 70-year-old retiree.

“I get scared,” she said. “I cry a lot, easily. That didn’t use to happen.”

Herndon is among the 50% of Houston-area residents who have wrestled with powerful or severe emotional distress since Hurricane Harvey deluged the city in 2017, according to a Rice University survey to be published Wednesday. Studies have shown similar outcomes with symptoms of anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress following other hurricanes, floods and wildfires – natural disasters that are intensifying as climate change accelerates. Already, the U.S. has faced nearly 40 such events costing at least a billion dollars each in the past decade, more than any period previously recorded. Mental health experts worry the psychological toll from these increasingly common cataclysms – with a pandemic now overlaid on top – could be unprecedented.

The nation isn’t ready.

The country’s primary aid for mental health after disasters is the Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Every year, the program distributes an average of $24 million, or 1% of FEMA’s annual total relief fund, to send mental health workers into disaster-stricken communities and provide other support. But the Center for Public Integrity and Columbia Journalism Investigations found that this help usually lasts about a year, even though the psychological effects can linger for many more and reaches only a fraction of survivors.

After Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, for instance, 18% of the island received counseling paid for by the program even though many more were affected. In Houston, where Harvey’s flooding was widespread, less than 1% of residents saw counseling.

The FEMA-funded program has given out $867 million nationwide in its more than three decades of existence – just slightly more than the money one Defense Department agency lost track of in a single year.

Studies show other forms of federal assistance, like housing aid, are distributed unevenly, exacerbating inequalities and drawing out recovery for communities of color and people with less money. This, in turn, compounds the trauma and emotional burdens of a disaster.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration referred questions to FEMA, which funds the effort. FEMA said its program, often shortened to CCP, provided counseling to 1.4 million people in the past five years and gave brief help to several million more.

“The toll that disasters put on mental health is well documented and part of the reason FEMA funds the CCP,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. The program, however, “exists to supplement, not supplant, state, local, tribal, and/or territorial resources.”

But more Americans are affected by climate-driven disasters every year, with serious emotional consequences. Even with FEMA aid, state and local resources aren’t enough.

Public Integrity, CJI and newsrooms across the country asked people affected by hurricanes, floods and wildfires – and the professionals helping such survivors – to share their experiences. More than 230 responded to the online survey, most from regions repeatedly hit by disasters in the last decade. That ranged from Puerto Rico, struck by seven major storms, to some Northern California communities fighting wildfires every year.

Seventy percent of the survivors said they did not get mental health services after their experience, for reasons ranging from cost to their belief that they didn’t need help. But the struggles they linked to the disaster – from anxiety and depression to trouble sleeping – suggest that many could have benefited from the support. Over 60% of survivors reported five or more types of emotional challenges in the first year after the disaster.

In Naguabo, Puerto Rico, Jonathan Alverio Rivera started having flashbacks after Maria slammed into the island in 2017. He lost power for three months, reliving the terror in the dark. Alverio Rivera, now a 29-year-old medical student, says he needed mental health aid but couldn’t find any.

“I didn’t see any ads or anything saying, ‘If you need help, call this number,’” he said.

In Magalia, California, Mickey Dukes, 65, lost her job as a medical technologist when the 2018 Camp Fire – the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire – burned through her town. The hospital where she worked closed, and many of her friends moved away.

“The feeling of loneliness is overwhelming,” said Dukes, but “we don’t really have very good mental health services.”

And in the rural Midwest, where those services are often spare to nonexistent, punishing floods in recent years have sowed trauma. Sharon Stewart’s community of Pacific Junction, Iowa, was largely wiped out by 2019 flooding.

“We’ve had a really, really, really rough year since then,” she said. “There’s so many people that went through so much.”

As scientists warn that the warming climate will keep adding fuel to extreme storms, Texas is a bellwether. In the last 10 years, the state faced 15 federally declared major disasters for storms or wildfires – six in the Houston area alone. Harvey, dumping more than 19 trillion gallons of rain on the state, was by far the worst. After that storm, FEMA awarded Texas $14 million for the counseling program, helping 200,000 survivors, officials say. But records show the number that received counseling is far lower. And many residents believe they’ve been forgotten.

That’s particularly true where Herndon lives, northeast Houston, with its lower-income, majority Black and Hispanic neighborhoods shaped by a long history of discrimination and increasing risks of floods. Three years after Harvey, some there are still rebuilding and the storm’s toll on mental health remains palpable, residents and community leaders say. The spread of COVID-19 through the city is yet another disaster piling stress onto residents with too much already. And the threat of more powerful storms is ever-present.

“It’s becoming routine, and that is not good,” said Robert D. Bullard, an environmental justice scholar at Texas Southern University in Houston. “That is not good.”


This story was published in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity and Columbia Journalism Investigations.

Disclosure: Rice University and Texas Southern University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article was first published at–mental-health by The Texas Tribune.



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