Human Concerns in Disaster Recovery – Part 2

By |2019-07-02T18:53:22+00:00May 23rd, 2019|0 Comments

This three-part blog addresses some of the human concerns of recovery:

Part 1 What: What are Human Concerns  
Part 2 So What: The Risks  
Part 3 Now What: The Applications  

Part 2

So What: The Risks. What is your why?

A. There Is Nothing New About the Idea That Disasters Are Stressful On Humans. 

It is common knowledge that a disaster produces collective stress that can exceed the ability of the affected population to cope with the physical, emotional, and financial burdens that result. 

There are many common symptoms of post-disaster trauma, where feelings become intense and sometimes unpredictable. Irritability, mood swings, anxiety, flashbacks, physical reactions, confusion, inability to make decisions, sleep/eating problems, addictions, headaches, nausea, chest pain, change in relationship skills, conflict, withdrawal, avoidance, anger, work loss, depression, and even suicide are reported manifestations of post-disaster responses. 

  • After the Northern California firestorm in October 2017, for example, the number of people seeking mental health resources in Sonoma County nearly doubled.
  • In 2010, researchers found that approximately one-third of Hurricane Katrina survivors who had been displaced to Houston, Texas had increased their tobacco, alcohol, or marijuana use after the storm.
  • Six months after Hurricane Sandy, a brief telephone screening found 14.5 percent of surveyed adults were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

B. Finding Meaning Can Ameliorate Post Disaster Stress

Catastrophe. We survive…then what?

Research has revealed cultures that technically survive catastrophe but no longer thrive, having lost their meaning, rituals, languages, and customs. Occupied and colonized indigenous people know this. Without deep “meaning” people do not thrive. Human factor aspects in recovery practices should include asking: “Why should you care about recovering eventually? What would it mean to eventually recover? What is your meaning, what is your why?”  

Transforming powerlessness into meaning is an incredible service to recovery. On a personal level, meaningful activities can include remembering, memorializing, journaling, photographic recording, talking story, supporting others, claiming significance, developing a new service mission, strengthening an existing belief system, providing new perspective, enhancing belonging, and sustaining values practices such as forgiveness and gratitude. At the community level, meaning can translate into actions that enhance respect for history, future, traditions, rituals, customs, collective collaborations, and shared values. In the workplace, meaning can be expressed by the employee who just wants to get back-to-work because “I need a paycheck” or the more esoteric “this work is my life mission.” 

C. So What About Meaning?

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” 

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Viktor E. Frankl 

According to Viktor Frankl’s seminal work, following his experiences in Nazi death camps, meaning is found

  • by creating a work or doing a deed
  • by experiencing something or encountering someone
  • by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

The philosopher Sartre stated that meaning is something truly unique to each person; separate, independent and not given…it must be achieved.

According to Kierkegaard, another legendary philosopher, meaning is a lived experience — a quest to find one’s values, beliefs, and purpose.

Meaning determines why someone wants to not only survive, but thrive after a disaster. Meaning is the glue of civilization. Finding meaning creates buy-on to the complex magnitude of legitimate recovery. Putting a Band-Aid® on someone may be good enough for a boo-boo. Reattaching meaning after a catastrophe requires not only heart and soul, but near surgical precision with critical attention to details. It takes more than a brief crisis intervention.

When recovery plans go beyond the cleanup kits, cash, food, water, business continuity protocols, critical incident interventions, teddy bears, and candles, it bridges the time between what was, what is, and what may be that forms a psychological and neurological connection. It takes more than well-intended “thoughts and prayers” to move through the what, so what, and now what process of recovery. There is a beginning, a middle and an end to the disaster. The earthquake ends. Then what? “What is your why?” helps move people from “I’m powerless” to “I’m reclaiming or have found new meaning.”

Meaning can be found in gardening, parenting, pets, art, exercise, faith, community service, people, places, philosophies, theologies, and more. Meaning is personal. Because meaning isn’t tangible it might be temporarily misplaced, but still exists. Meanings are the anchors and shelters we use before, during, and after disaster. If meaning disappears, it needs to be restored along with the buildings and electrical systems. Most professionals know there is nothing more off track than preaching your meaning or saying “everything happens for a reason” to someone reeling in grief. However, gently introducing the concept of meaningfulness is an essential “Part” of the process of recovery and a significant addition to long term healing. 

D. From Survive to Thrive

Q: How can you recognize recovery?

A: People are continuing, connecting, contributing, and finding meaning. 

I suggest several two-month follow-ups to establish “how everyone is really doing.” Like being exposed to a contagious disease that you believe you are immune to, after a massive exposure you might “come down with the bug” anyway. Stress can work like that also. Most people recover, find meaning, get on with life, adapt, cope and have resilience. If not, the symptoms might start showing after a few weeks or months. My clients are advised to seek help if they aren’t starting to have some good minutes, hours, or even days after a couple of months. They may still feel bad, upset, sad, mad, or at lost ends most of the time, but recovery is a non-linear process. This means they should ALSO start having some better feeling periods with more distance from the event. This does not mean forgetting, glossing over, replacing the experience with some false sense of happy-meaning, or “getting over it.” Some things can never be “gotten over” entirely. Nor should they be. However, the initial bottomless abyss, still as deep, should eventually take up a little less time and devastating emotional real estate. The survivor can still go there in a heartbeat but hopefully won’t move their furniture in with a U-Haul® truck. Meaning provides a bungee cord to visit and then exit the grief. Encourage them to visit and feel the feelings, and keep looking for new meaning. Some survivors will thrive by turning the disaster into their own mission of service. As long as it isn’t just a way to continue emotional self-harm this meaning can be a powerful new contribution. Individuals and communities heal when they discover the meanings of their disasters…especially with catastrophic disasters that seem absolutely meaningless. 

Stay Tuned for Part 3: Now What: Applications for Meaning and Resiliency


Brian Stafford et al, The Emotional Impact of Disasters on Children and Families, American Academy of Pediatrics. 

Susanne Babbel, The Trauma That Arises from Natural Disasters, Psychology Today, 2010. 

Knvul Sheikh, Natural Disasters Take a Toll on Mental Health, BrainFacts, 2018. 

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Beacon Press, 2006

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About the Author:

Dr. Vali Hawkins-Mitchell is a licensed mental health counselor, trauma and resiliency specialist, business consultant, well published author, award winning artist, and coach. Currently she is the co-owner of the largest employee assistance program and physician assistance program in the state of Hawaii and a leading international authority on the role of emotions in the workplace. She holds a PhD in health education, a master’s degree in psychology, and another master’s degree in art therapy.

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