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Natural Disasters are Traumatic: Urge Congress to Support Three Bills to Help Communities Heal

By Jen Curt, CTIPP's Director of Government Affairs

On September 18th, Hurricane Fiona made landfall on Puerto Rico, bringing massive rainfall, killing more than 30 people, and leaving 1.18 million people without power.

Ten days later, Hurricane Ian hit Florida, killing over 100 people and displacing thousands whose homes were destroyed.

The Mosquito Fire, which began in California on September 8th, is still active. So far, it has burned 80 thousand acres of land, evacuating 11,000 people and burning and damaging nearly 100 buildings.

In July, historic floods hit eastern Kentucky, killing more than 40 people with hundreds still missing.

A hurricane, storm, or wildfire is traumatic for many. What comes after it adds to the toxic stress survivors endure. Natural disasters remove access to food and healthcare facilities. They cause financial wreckage and destabilization as people lose their homes and personal belongings. They disrupt routine – often for months – closing schools and community spaces. People’s neighborhoods become unrecognizable and take years to rebuild. Rescue teams search for missing people, and the reported death tolls climb.

Without support, survivors can struggle for the rest of their lives.

Hurricanes Fiona and Ian and the Kentucky floods are just the most recent examples of natural disasters that have caused many persistent feelings of panic, stress, and grief.

This adversity and chronic stress can create long-lasting negative health outcomes when left unaddressed or without adequate support.

Experiencing a natural disaster by age five is associated with a 16 percent increase in mental health or substance use disorder by adulthood. A large-scale study of earthquake survivors found that 24 percent had post-traumatic stress disorder. In the United States, an estimated 7.4 million kids are affected by wildfire smoke each year, which not only affects the respiratory system but may contribute to attention deficit or hyperactivity disorder, autism, impaired school performance, and memory problems. We can and must do more to support individuals, families, and communities in the face of natural disasters.

Members of Congress must unlock the tools that communities need to prepare and rebuild.

Unfortunately, natural disasters will continue to occur, but there are solutions to expedite and improve healing in future events.

First, we must provide the necessary funding to create partnerships nationwide that build stronger communities by supporting physical, psychological, social, emotional, cultural, and spiritual well-being. These partnerships will bring together entities in various sectors to work collaboratively to promote regulation and mutual support and enhance access to trauma-informed services. This prevention approach will help individuals and whole communities recover more quickly if disaster strikes.

Plus, we must help community members mobilize after disasters to support one another’s healing from the emotional impacts. This will also prevent long-term physical and mental health problems.

Bipartisan legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate has already been introduced to do just that:

  • The Post-Disaster Mental Health Response Act would provide a community-based and community-driven mental health response using evidence-based practices proven to decrease mental health and substance use disorder in the long term. States, tribes, and territories would have resources to train community members and compensate local counselors to teach coping strategies and connect survivors with long-term care when needed. Through the program, they may set up group peer support sessions, emergency phone lines, and educational materials promoting the use of positive coping strategies. This program already exists but is not currently available for all natural disasters, and this legislation changes that.

  • The R.I.S.E. from Trauma Act would expand trauma-informed training to the workforce in schools, healthcare settings, social services, and first responders and increase community resources to address the impact of trauma. Among other provisions, it would create a grant program to support community-based coalitions coordinating stakeholders and delivering targeted local services to address trauma. These coalitions increase protective factors for people to help them weather stress. This creates stronger, more connected communities, more aware of trauma and equipped to address it.

  • The Community Mental Wellness and Resilience Act would create a new program to build community partnerships that use a public health approach – emphasizing prevention – to help populations prepare for natural disasters, including the disruption they cause to traditional food and water systems and other types of adversity.

Each piece of legislation has been introduced with support from the Campaign for Trauma-Informed Policy and Practice (CTIPP) and other experts. Congressmembers should act swiftly to enact these bills.

CTIPP holds survivors of Hurricane Ian, Hurricane Fiona, the Mosquito Fire, and the Kentucky floods in our hearts and will continue to advocate for the resources individuals, families, and communities need.


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