From 1975 to 1994, natural disasters in the United States caused between $230 billion and $1 trillion in property and crop losses, killed more than 24,000 people, and injured four times that many. In addition to these losses, the psychological burden on disaster survivors cannot be overlooked. This article uses research on the survivors of a major flood to illustrate the challenges survivors face and the strategies they use to cope with their situation.
Home is more than just a physical or social environment; it represents an extension of the self and is inextricably bound to a family's identity. Loss of a home to a catastrophic event and subsequent relocation to a new home upsets this equation. Coupled with the damage to the larger community and to work environments that can take place in a catastrophe, the loss of a home can challenge family functioning.
Families whose homes are destroyed use a variety of coping strategies-both positive and negative- to understand their situations and face the future. Excerpts from interviews with families capture these functional and dysfunctional strategies-often within the same family. Positive strategies included reordering the family's priorities, often by moving away from a focus on material things. Many parents, for example, expressed happiness in the fact that their children survived the flood unharmed rather than sadness over lost belongings. Families also immersed themselves in rebuilding their lost homes, found renewed religious faith, and reached out to their communities and extended families for support. But some flood survivors withdrew from extended family or developed conflicts within their own families. Others directed their grief and anger about their losses toward government agencies and their representatives, or toward people they believed had taken unfair advantage of disaster assistance.
Providing ongoing mental health services to families that have lost their homes is vitally important. Immediately after the disaster, service providers may need to offer services in emergency shelters. It is important to give special attention to the elderly, children, and the physically handicapped and develop programs that take into account the cultural and regional characteristics of the population served. In situations where entire communities have been devastated, the bonds within families and between families and the larger community must be strengthened and supported to avoid negative coping strategies than can increase stress. Children may be the initial point of contact between families and mental health professionals, but it is important to work with the entire family, because the health of each member affects the entire family.