Lesson from Hurricane Katrina: Disasters Can Lead to Substance Abuse

By Nancy Wurtzel

The human dangers surrounding an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, flood, drought, wildfire, oil spill, contamination, war, terrorist attack, and other catastrophes are obvious, but not so easy to detect are the severe trauma and stress that lingers long after the disaster is over.

Mental health professionals are now taking a closer look at what happens to people who have lived through a man-made or natural disaster.

One major study focuses on Hurricane Katrina, the massive 2005 hurricane that decimated most of New Orleans and parts of the southern gulf coast. Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters in modern U.S. history. The hurricane and subsequent flooding claimed hundreds of lives and rendered many areas, including most of New Orleans, uninhabitable. The event itself was a huge trauma. However, for those who lived in the affected areas, the mental strain didn’t stop after the waters receded.

In fact, the aftermath of a natural disaster often causes a cascade of harmful events.

That’s what happened after Hurricane Katrina. People lost their homes, possessions, and were forced to relocate, sometimes halfway across the country. Jobs disappeared and schools closed. Public infrastructure became fragile or sometimes even nonexistent. Families were often displaced and separated, causing relationships to splinter, fray or even break. Years after the hurricane, many individuals were found to still be living in a constant state of chaos, stress, and anxiety.

How do people cope under these relentless and stressful conditions?

Long-term stress manifests itself in many ways. A new look at the consequences of Hurricane Katrina shows a significant number of individuals succumbed to substance abuse or dependence.

This link between trauma surrounding natural disasters and increased risk of substance abuse is the focus of a 2016 study authored by Imelda K. Moise, Ph.D., of the University of Miami, and Marilyn O. Ruiz, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois.

The duo lead a research team that examined hospital data from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals in New Orleans from the years 2004 (pre-Katrina) and then 2008 (post-Katrina), looking to see if there was a change in the rate of hospitalizations for substance abuse.

The team found the rate of hospitalizations for substance abuse disorders increased approximately 30 percent, from 7.13 hospitalizations for every 1,000 people to 9.65 hospitalizations for every 1,000 people. Poverty was a main predictor for these hospitalizations during both time periods. Additionally, the study concluded that men were more likely than women to be hospitalized for substance abuse.

“Exposure to a disaster can entail physical threats to life and post-disaster behavior and readjustment problems (e.g., dealing with loss of home, friends, or family). These events can increase the risk of substance abuse, such as extensive drinking or drug use, as a coping mechanism,” wrote Moise and Ruiz.