Study: Ongoing Recovery Efforts Take Mental Health Toll on Sandy Survivors

July 30, 2015

A new study says the lingering effects of Superstorm Sandy — in the form of unfinished repairs, disputed claims, and recurrent mold — are associated with increased odds of Sandy-impacted residents experiencing mental health distress, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression.

According to the “Sandy Child and Family Health Study” released on July 29, among more than 100,000 New Jersey residents who experienced significant structural damage to their primary homes from Sandy, 27 percent are experiencing moderate or severe mental health distress and 14 percent report the signs and symptoms of PTSD even two and a half years after the storm.

The study is a representative population study of 1 million New Jersey residents who lived in Sandy’s path. Its findings are based on face-to-face surveys with 1,000 randomly sampled New Jersey residents living in the state’s nine counties most affected by Sandy. The study was conducted by Rutgers University and New York University (NYU), in collaboration with Columbia University and Colorado State University.

The research team from the four universities deployed a team of nearly three-dozen community-based interviewers to conduct the surveys. In addition, the team used flood storm surge data and housing damage data to identify a “disaster footprint,” the geographic area within New Jersey that was exposed to Sandy. The 1,000-person sample was drawn to be representative of the 1,047,000 residents living in Sandy’s disaster footprint which extends from Cape May in the south of the state to several miles north of the George Washington Bridge, and stretches from the shoreline to over 20 miles inland.

Other findings from the study revealed that:

  • Children in storm-damaged homes are at higher risk for mental health problems than children’s homes who suffered no damage.
  • Children living in homes with minor damage were over five times as likely to feel sad or depressed as were children in homes that were not damaged, over eight times as likely to have difficulty sleeping, and five times as likely to feel nervous or afraid.
  • Children whose homes suffered major damage were affected as well, although, interestingly, those in homes with minor damage demonstrated the most substantial mental health effects. This may be because home repairs are likely to take place in homes that suffered major damage.
  • A number of residents whose homes suffered major damage said that they often did not have enough money for rent or mortgage, to pay for utilities, to pay for transportation, or to pay for all the food that they or their family needed.
  • Mold was significantly associated with both asthma and with mental health distress.
  • Despite the efforts of public officials to urge residents to move out of harm’s way prior to the storm, only one-third of the residents living in mandatory evacuation zones heeded the calls to evacuate their homes.

“Recovery, or stalled recovery, is not as dramatic as the storm and the initial response,” said NYU’s David Abramson, the study’s principal investigator. “But it is what exacts the greatest toll both financially and psychologically. Sandy may have occurred nearly three years ago, but it has had an enduring impact on those individuals and communities exposed to it,” he said.

Sandy’s Enduring Impact

Among the study’s objectives were to help the state identify the health and well-being of residents exposed to the storm and to begin to identify unmet needs.

“The state always knew recovery from Superstorm Sandy would take years,” New Jersey Health Commissioner Mary O’Dowd said. “In the aftermath of Sandy, the Department of Health recognized the need for research and so we funded this study so we could hear the concerns of recovering families and modify our ongoing Sandy programs to better address the needs of those who are still coping with recovery issues. For example, the Department recently extended programs for behavioral health assistance and lead screening for another year.”

“It was striking to us and to our field team of over 30 interviewers how Sandy still dominated the lives of so many New Jersey residents, even two and a half years after the event,” added Rutgers University’s Donna Van Alst, the study’s co-principal investigator. “People across the economic spectrum were affected.”

The study is modeled upon a similar five-year study conducted by Abramson and Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness in Louisiana and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. The Sandy study was funded by the New Jersey Department of Health using Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) – Sandy Supplemental funds.

“The similarities between Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy are quite disturbing,” noted Abramson. “Many adults and children are still experiencing emotional and psychological effects, so long after the storm passed. In a significant number of cases housing damage is at the heart of the problem, and it’s very concerning to hear that so many of the federally-financed programs have ended even though the needs still clearly persist.”

Source: New York University

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