Lessons from Katrina: After the News Moves On, the Hard Work Begins

Ten years ago this month, Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast, claiming more than 1,800 lives and damaging more than $100 billion in property in a mass tragedy that captured the attention of the world.

But long after the news crews left New Orleans, the consequences of Katrina continued to play out–not just in the well being of area residents, but in the larger understanding of the impact that disasters have on population health. It has become increasingly clear in the last decade that community-building supports and long-term mental health assistance improve resilience after mass disasters.

Katrina pushed us to consider new ways of reaching hard-to-reach populations; now, the challenge is to keep that momentum going, so that the lapses in our initial response to Katrina are never repeated.

The number of disasters worldwide–both natural and human-made–is increasing, principally as a result of global climate change and urbanization. In 2012, there were almost 360 natural disasters registered worldwide. China is the country most frequently affected, followed by the U.S., the Philippines, India, and Indonesia. In the U.S., an estimated 13 to 19 percent of adults have reported having experienced a disaster in their lifetime.

Between 2003 and 2012, natural disasters killed an average of 106,654 people each year. The burden of disasters includes lost life, infrastructure damage, monetary loss, years lost to disability, interruption of services, and injuries. Physical injuries and death are usually immediate, happening within minutes of the event. But they also are very much the “tip of the iceberg”–a small fraction of the health burden that principally involves mental health, and that can be long-term and debilitating.

In reviewing literature on PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) with colleagues, I previously found that 30 to 60 percent of direct victims of disasters experience PTSD. This prevalence —> Read More