For many Colorado residents, last week’s floods brought life to a halt. Hundreds of people required emergency evacuation; rescue crews scoured the rubble for missing people, and throughout the week, more than a thousand people remained unaccounted for. By the weekend, numerous families were reunited, but many were still listed as missing, and towns were physically devastated by the damage from the flood. Roads have been washed away, homes have been destroyed, and vital infrastructure has been damaged.
As the citizens of Colorado begin to emotionally process the extent of the tragedy, they will doubtless experience some of the typical signs of trauma. Those symptoms include steady or intermittent feelings of denial, shock, or numbness, as well as panic or worry.
In the aftermath of disasters, people often display symptoms similar to those of depression, including feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, sadness, despair, difficulty concentrating, and withdrawal.
Sleep disturbances, headaches and frequent crying are not unusual. Perhaps worst of all, their sense of security is often shaken, and they feel vulnerable to other dangers.
After Tragedy: United Communities Reduce Trauma
A renowned 19th century sociologist, Emile Durkheim, posited that terrible crimes have the effect of uniting communities. He believed that crime is collectively disturbing to many members of a community, so individuals respond to the infringement on social norms by acting collectively, thereby weakening the effects of the crime and promoting solidarity. Durkheim’s ideas form the basis of extensive research about the benefits of social solidarity. For example, it is well-documented that there are lower rates of crime in neighborhoods with high levels of solidarity.
Recent research by two American professors and two Finnish professors further builds on the strength of social togetherness. The study, led by James Hawdon, examined responses to tragedies, specifically school shootings. They found that community members were most likely to respond together when a tragedy affected many members of society, it disrupted the routine of everyday life, and the collective was viewed as unwilling participants in the tragedy.
Following such a tragedy, the well-being of individuals appeared bolstered by social support. People expressed their need for belonging, and group activities seemed to fulfill that need and reduce their sense of trauma. Specifically, community vigils, mass gatherings, and spontaneously-erected monuments to the victims demonstrated the unity of the communities. The fact that they gathered to express their collective belief allowed them to focus their attention on their collective loss, rather than on their personal losses. That feeling of solidarity gave them a source of emotional support.
Community Resilience Strengthens Disaster Recovery
A study published in July’s issue of the American Journal of Public Health reinforces the importance of community support. The study, led by Alonzo Plough, notes that the current focus of public health emergency preparedness is building community resilience to disasters.
When community members have an underlying lack of trust in community-based, faith-based and other neighborhood-level organizations, they do not recover well from emergencies and disasters. Unlike members of strong, unified communities, which show resilience in the face of disaster, members of unconnected communities show compromised physical and emotional health in the wake of tragedies, such as Hurricane Sandy and the swine flu pandemic.
Various researchers have defined community resilience. Generally speaking, it refers to the sustained ability of a community to recover from adversity. This resilience is dependent upon social support networks, community cohesiveness, information and communication, and the integration of governmental and nongovernmental organizations. When public health efforts stress wellness, education, engagement, partnership and access, community resilience is improved. Connectedness among individuals, organizations and government agencies is key to giving community members the tools they need to recover from disasters.
Lessons for Colorado
As the sun begins to shine once again, and disaster workers sort through the aftermath of the floods, community members in Colorado will doubtless come together. There are already numerous local and national organizations donating funds and disaster clean-up to people directly affected by the flooding. Beyond those important efforts, the sense of coming together, through vigils and gatherings, will give Colorado residents the support they need to recover from their sense of trauma.
Kedmey, D. A Thousand People Still Trapped in Colorado Flash Floods. (2013). Time.
Kieran Nicholson and Ryan Parker. Number of people unaccounted for in Colorado flooding drops. (2013). Denver Post.