It’s one thing to read scientific reports about the mental health impacts of climate and weather disasters and quite another to watch those impacts play out in real time on your Facebook feed.
I used to live in Louisiana—first in Baton Rouge, and then in Lafayette—and my work took me from the sleepiest bayou towns to the restless energy of New Orleans. Since I moved back north, I’ve watched my friends there deal with one crisis after another, including the largest marine oil spill in U.S. history and a summer of violence by and against police.
And now, because of an unnamed 1,000-year storm consistent with the supercharged weather we expect in a changed climate, once-familiar neighborhoods are alien. Streets and houses are covered by mucky brown water that will be slow to subside because of additional rainfall and a phenomenon called “backwater flooding”. Large swaths of two of Louisiana’s largest cities have been impassable in recent days, except by boat.
What you don’t see in the aerial floodwater pictures is the people individually and collectively struggling to cope—even if their own houses are dry. As Melanie, a 10-year resident of Louisiana put it to me: “Every single human I’ve interacted with is personally connected to losing everything. I can’t choose which of the 20 people I know to go help today.” She says it’s hard get access to basic necessities like shoes and prescription drugs, and even harder to find people who can provide emotional support. “People are in a fog,” observed Jeffrey, another friend, who says he “shut down for a couple of days” because of the flooding’s toll on his health.
According to the federal Climate and Health Assessment released in April, people in communities affected by flooding are likely to experience anxiety and depression, and may turn to “high-risk coping behaviors” like heavy drinking. Most people recover over time, but up to 20 percent of those exposed to a given disaster can develop long-term mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder. One of the more shocking statistics in the report comes from a study of women displaced in 2005 by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina: the rate of suicide attempts was nearly 79 times higher than the regional average, and the rate of suicide completions was nearly 15 times higher.
In fact, pregnant and postpartum women are particularly vulnerable to long-term mental health effects of disasters, particularly in the absence of good nutrition. But as Melanie points out, “It’s hard to find bread in Baton Rouge. It’s hard to find vegetables in Baton Rouge.”
A sense that the world will soon forget Louisiana’s troubles isn’t exactly improving mental well-being. As Melanie’s neighbor Kelsey said, “It’s terrifying to think that in a few short weeks, no one is going to care.”
But we can’t stop caring.
Helping south Louisianans put their lives back together is the right thing and the smart thing to do. Lessons learned in one community during disaster response and recovery can help other communities improve their own efforts. Giving families the social and financial support they need now can make it easier for them to cope with future disasters. Climate-smart flood insurance reforms—which NRDC is working on—could also make recovering and rebuilding from future events less traumatic. And facing the stark reality that we need to factor climate change into disaster and housing and economic development plans will make us safer, but also free up resources to help the next Baton Rouge, Louisiana; the next Greenbrier County, West Virginia; or the next San Bernardino County, California when they need it most.