Why Some Communities Recover Better After Natural Disasters

A resilience expert on what his research has revealed.

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

This article is part of an ongoing series where experts talk about the link between climate change and mental health.

There are many things to worry about after a natural disaster—infrastructural problems like rebuilding homes and restoring power, getting access to food and water, making sure your family is safe. The list goes on. But as Daniel Aldrich, PhD, author of the book Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery, has found, having strong social connections really makes a difference in recovery efforts.

Aldrich is a professor and director of the Security and Resilience Program at Northeastern University. In this interview he talks the importance of friends and family in bouncing back after disasters and how important this will be as we all become more vulnerable to the risks posed by climate change.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Thrive Global: What does your research reveal about how extreme weather events and climate disasters impact communities’ mental health?
Daniel Aldrich: My research team here at Northeastern University and I have been working on a number of disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, the [March 2011] compounded disasters in Japan, and the recent Hurricane Harvey. All of these disasters have created anxiety, worry, and in extreme cases, mental illness among survivors. We have found that in some cases the trauma lasts well beyond the “recovery” period for the physical infrastructure of the community; the houses and schools may be rebuilt, but survivors may still experience nightmares, panic attacks, and, at the extreme, PTSD symptoms when triggered by events (e.g. seeing another disaster on television, re-encountering the same space in which they lost a loved one, etc.).

TG: What factors affect how well communities fare after natural disasters?
DA: We found that, across disasters, survivors and communities with stronger social infrastructure—the ties that bind us to each other—did better. For example, for Japanese residents who had to evacuate their homes indefinitely because of the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdowns, they had far higher levels of anxiety, stress, and physical manifestations of mental illness than survivors who went through the tsunami or earthquake, but not the radiation exposure. And for those survivors, we found that commonly referenced factors such as health and wealth did not mitigate these effects. Being in better physical shape or having more money did not make people noticeably less anxious. The only factor that we saw which reduced anxiety was social ties. Individuals who had more friends, neighbors, and relatives nearby did far better than more isolated people.

“The only factor that we saw which reduced anxiety was social ties. Individuals who had more friends, neighbors, and relatives nearby did far better than more isolated people.”

TG: How do factors like anxiety, depression and stress impact people’s ability to be resilient?
DA: We believe that mental health issues have very measurable impacts on physical health. Individuals who are depressed, stressed, or unable to concentrate have more accidents, less efficiency, and less ability to engage.

TG: How can people become more resilient?
DA: To become more resilient, my team and I have put together a package of policies that we’re encouraging neighborhoods and communities around the world (e.g. Wellington, NZ, Cambridge, MA, San Francisco, CA, etc.) to try out. These include strengthening ties with neighbors, holding regular community events, engaging citizens in every planning and zoning event possible, creating local communities, and building spaces that encourage social interaction.

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