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The Aftermath of a Disaster

Disaster Can Have Long Lasting Effect on Survivors

After a disaster, survival becomes the primary concern.  Survivors are often in need of food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities.  However, once the initial shock subsides, survivors are tasked with piecing their lives back together.  Moreover, survivors and their families are made more aware of the residual effects of a disaster- some of which only manifest after an extended period of time.  

Here are some of the most common reactions and legal issues that a family may experience in the aftermath of a disaster, as well as resources that may help them. 

Immediate effects - Some of the reactions that may happen immediately after the disaster and continue for a few weeks, including:

  • Being afraid for each other’s safety away from home
  • Nightmares or fear that another disaster will occur
  • Anger about the fear and distress the disaster has caused, sometimes directed at another family member or people outside the family.
  • Fear and anxiety about the uncertainty of the future.
  • Loss of trust and confidence in themselves and other people
  • Emotional turmoil, anger, guilt, sadness, unpredictable behavior, or unreasonable reactions
  • Insecurity in children, manifesting in unusual behavior.  Examples include bedwetting, changes in eating and sleeping habits, or regressing to behavior they have outgrown.
  • May have difficulty communicating because family members don’t know what to say to each other or don’t feel like talking.
  • Due to lack of shelter, children are left with non-custodial parents or relatives, increasing the stress on children.  This sometimes results in a sense of abandonment. 

Medium-term effects- Changes that are not so obviously related to the disaster can happen weeks or months after the event. These changes can include:

  • Irritability or intolerance, which may lead to friction between spouses or co-parents and/or their children.
  • Children and teenagers can begin to seek attention or act out, which usually means they are anxious or fearful.

Family members' feelings for each other may change as they become more detached or preoccupied with their own problems and reactions.

  • Family members may try too hard to help others and ignore their own needs.
  • Family members' work or school performance and concentration levels may suffer.
  • Spouses' sexual relationships may change.
  • Family members may lose interest in leisure, recreation, sport, or social activities.
  • Teenagers may look outside the family for emotional support or develop poor coping behaviors.
  • Immediate post-disaster responses may continue or appear for the first time.
  • The strain on the family can lead to divorce or separation of the parents and the family unit.

 Long term effects – Changes that manifest more than 12 months after the disaster

  • Memories of the disaster may come back if family members are involved in another crisis.
  • Some individuals display PTSD symptoms.
  • People may find future disasters harder to handle, especially when similar feelings occur.
  • Family members may hide painful feelings until the situation has returned to normal and only then show their distress.
  • Adults who typically provide support, protection, and stability may flounder at providing these resources. They may fail to respond appropriately to their child’s emotional distress because their own emotional response incapacitates them. 
  • Children are affected by their caregiver’s response to an event; an overwhelmed caregiver is frequently the cause for a distressed child. Emotional or behavioral disorders manifested by caregivers increase a child’s feelings of insecurity and fear, increasing the chances of long-term emotional and behavioral disorders.
  • Families characterized by tense and conflicting relationships before the disaster are more likely to react in non-adaptive and disorganized manners. This reaction reinforces feelings of helplessness and insecurity in children.
  • Non-custodial parents or relatives taking care of the children sometimes seek conservatorship over the children by obtaining a SAPCR or modifying an existing order.  Some primary parents have a hard time bouncing back from a disaster, and children can be in another household for a year or more.
  • The lack of stability causes stress on the primary parent who feels their children are being “taken away” due to a situation outside their control.
  • It also causes stress on the children who must choose between a parent or relative or another parent. If the child is older, they may not want to return to “home” because of the safety and stability they now have at their new residence.