When people think of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they typically think of war zones and possibly areas plagued by gun violence. Few people recognize the trauma that can arise from living through a natural disaster worsened by climate change and policy inaction.
But according to research, both PTSD and suicide can arise following natural disasters. At a time of increasing natural disasters brought on by the climate crisis and man-made inaction, political leaders must develop a greater appreciation for the toll of weather emergencies on communities across the country, especially low-income communities. In addition to greater awareness, political leaders must have the urgency and political courage to do something about it.
By way of background, I should share that trauma is anything that overwhelms the senses and prevents a person from functioning or processing a significant event. Trauma-Informed Care notes that it “results from exposure to an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being.” Although it is not often talked about, natural disasters can cause lasting trauma.
I began my work in disaster recovery over ten years ago, and sadly, not much has changed. At Houston Organizing Movement for Equity (HOME) Coalition, where I serve as executive director, we strive to connect real challenges to equity-based solutions. From over a decade of experience, we know decision-makers must take that action to ensure all communities have adequate flooding mitigation, access to resources for persons living in poverty and a true reckoning of how disasters exacerbate long-existing disparities in low-income communities of color.
Disasters devastate communities in terms of property and resources but also mental health. For instance, Hurricane Maria in 2017 significantly impacted children in Puerto Rico. For example, Fierce Healthcare reported that “As a result of the natural disaster, 83.9 percent of youths saw houses damaged, 57.8 percent had a friend or family member leave the island, 45.7 percent reported damage to their own homes, 32.3 percent experienced food shortages, 29.9 percent believed their lives were at risk, and 16.7 percent still had no electricity five to nine months after the hurricane.”
There are several reasons to address failures in the disaster recovery system, and mental health is certainly one of them. That is important year-round, but it is critical this wildfire and hurricane season. I should note that 2020 was a record-breaking Atlantic season, with thousands of people losing their lives. Relatedly, 2020 had the most named storms, exhausted its oft-used names and resorted to Greek letters. The climate crisis is causing more frequent storms and increasing intensity.
While bracing for another projected intense hurricane season, many low-income communities of color, including in Houston, have yet to recover from storms that hit over five years ago. That is causing fear and panic. In fact, a lot of Houstonians are experiencing PTSD from both Hurricane Harvey and winter storm, Uri. For instance, the power grids that failed Texas during Uri were compromised last month.
Summer is underway, and before the peak of summer, Texans have already been asked to keep their thermostat at 78 degrees to avoid blackouts. What will happen if there is another failure – this time in the heat of summer and in the wake of a storm?
Indeed, in Houston, hurricanes and tropical activity are common. But the climate crisis has intensified the damage and frequency of storms, placing a bulls-eye on the most vulnerable. For instance, Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017; yet many homes remain in disrepair five years later. That has forced individuals and families to live in homes with leaky roofs, moldy walls and ceilings, and problems at every turn.
The poor handling of disaster is not limited to Harvey. Uri brought unprecedented freezing conditions to Texas, leaving many communities in the dark for days. When temperatures warmed, many families faced bursting pipes and flooding. Navigating such challenges with one’s home is one thing when a person has financial resources. Storms hit differently when households are underpaid and living on fixed incomes, disability and social security and face challenges making ends meet before.
It has been said that we can learn a lot about a country by how it treats the most vulnerable. What does our disaster recovery system say about our treatment of persons in poverty and those living on the margins?
This season and every season, the disaster recovery system must be just and equitable. There must be preparation, policy change, funding, and courage to address the climate crisis that fuels disasters and the corresponding mental health challenges they cause. We are not yet in the thick of the storm, and now is as good a time as any for officials to harness the political courage to act and act fast.
Chrishelle Palay is the executive director of HOME Coalition in Houston and has worked for years helping to ensure vulnerable communities get the resources they need to navigate hurricane and wildfire season.