The Effects of Disaster

According to a report from Lynne M. Borden,Extension Specialist and Associate Professor, The University of Arizona, To understand disasters, it helps to consider the types that exist, the duration of the disaster, and whether the disaster is natural or human-made. Each of these factors greatly influences the degree of stress that is felt within a family.

Changes such as these require decisions that are difficult and often emotionally painful for all members of the family. Moreover, these changes often result in a decrease in time spent with children to provide much needed emotional support.

Lynne M. Borden
Extension Specialist and Associate Professor
The University of Arizona
Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences


Disasters may be natural or human-made. Natural disasters are caused by forces of nature, such as floods, fires, hurricanes, or earthquakes. They can do minimal damage and affect a small number of people, or they can be
catastrophic and create monumental damage, affect the lives of tens of thousands of people, and disrupt the lives of entire communities (American Academy of Pediatrics Work Group on Disasters, 1995). It is important to understand that natural disasters can be either immediate (as with a tornado) or on going (as with a drought).

Human-made disasters, such as vehicle accidents, war, and terrorist attacks, create a different set of challenges for families and often create greater distress than natural disasters (Yule, 1993). Individuals and families perceive these events as involving someone or something (e.g., government, terrorists, business) that is to blame.

The type of disaster, duration, intensity, amount of destruction, and the duration of displacement can also greatly influence the lives of families. Research suggests that the severity of the experience is related to overall levels of adverse mental health effects (Yule, 1993).

Understanding the experience of families living with disaster also requires considering the family and the community context, including circumstances prior to, during, and after the disaster. The National Institute of Mental Health (1983) suggests that assessment of the effects of a disaster requires considering all phases of the disaster.

  1. Pre-disaster – community, family, and individual conditions prior to disaster
  2. Warning – media gives word of the impending disaster
  3. Threat – immediately precedes the actual impact
  4. Post-disaster – survivors take inventory of events
  5. Rescue phase – survivors and emergency workers join to save those affected by the disaster
  6. Remediation – the Red Cross, insurance adjusters, Federal Government, and local relief efforts take action
  7. Recovery period – physical structures are rebuilt, and families and individuals begin to cope

The American Academy of Pediatrics Work Group on 7/30/2020 (Supporting Families Following a Disaster 1995) notes that each disaster is different depending on its scope and intensity, and on characteristics of the
community, family, and individual.

It suggests that the effect of disasters on communities may include destruction of infrastructure absence of electricity, sanitation, and potable water destruction of physical contact with the outside world (e.g., roadways, phones, and bridges) vulnerability and exploitation due to disaster and media sensationalism potential recurrence.

Understanding the stages of a disaster provides information that can be very useful when working with families because disasters often have surprisingly long-term consequences for families. Families may find that their normal routines have been completely altered. Parents may also be forced to address complex issues, including the loss of income or family farm. Parents may find it necessary to find new employment. It may even be necessary for parents or the entire family to move to a different city in order to find employment. A nonworking parent may have to return to work in order to assist with the economic hardships created by the disaster. Young people may find that they are sent to live with relatives until the damage from the disaster is repaired.