Joshua L. Miller, a professor of social work and associate dean at Smith College, teaches about and helps people respond to natural disasters, like Hurricane Sandy. The author of several books, Miller has been a member of teams responding to 9/11, the 2004 Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2010 Haitian earthquake, among others.
Is there a common thread, a typical way people respond to natural disasters?
I’m careful and cautious about overgeneralizing. The vast majority of people are incredibly resilient. There’s always a small group that isn’t, and they need help and intervention.
Can watching disasters unfold on TV or other media trigger trauma or flashbacks in viewers?
We all carry our own personal histories. Something like this certainly can trigger a reopening of frightening, traumatic, stressful experiences and our body starts to act like it’s happening.
Do people respond differently to natural disasters than to deliberate, man-made atrocities, like war?
In the [mental health] field, one school of thought says that natural disasters are not as scary as terrorism or chemical disasters or nuclear power plant meltdowns, because there’s no human element in it, allegedly. But there always is a human element in it. As we saw in Hurricane Katrina, human beings created the conditions that made it so devastating.
People have praised the way most local, state, and federal officials responded to Hurricane Sandy. Does leadership matter in terms of how people cope and respond to disasters?
I’ve been more impressed with the leadership with this disaster than any I’ve been involved with in the United States. They’re reassuring everybody. They’re working together. They’re creating this holding environment — we’re going to take care of you, you’re not out there on your own — and I think that goes a long way.
Are there factors that make a disaster more difficult for one community versus another?
When I worked with the Vietnamese community in Biloxi, [Miss.,] after Katrina ‘not a big deal’ was what I heard over and over again. Why? Because they had resources, some of them to leave. Those who stayed were part of a tightly knit community and they took care of each other. And many of them had been boat people [refugees from Communist-held Vietnam]. Compared to being a boat person, surviving Hurricane Katrina wasn’t a big deal. Other groups had never experienced anything like this and they felt this was the most awful moment of their lives.
Can there be a silver lining to disasters?
Very often, people start to rethink things and not take for granted things they’ve been taking for granted. I can’t tell you how many people I spoke to after 9/11 who said they were reevaluating their lives, what was important for them, the direction they were going in. I’ve found that all over the world.
Is control, or a sense of control, vital to recovery?
If we feel we have some control either during the storm or afterward, that’s empowering. Lack of control is very frightening. If we can’t regain a sense of control and mastery, that can be very destabilizing.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there were accusations that the government wasn’t responding aggressively because the victims were poor and often people of color. Do you see that happening now?
The social divisions in a society — who’s privileged and who’s oppressed — they don’t go away during a disaster. If anything they’re exacerbated. It can also work the other way. In New York after 9/11 — I’ve never seen the city like that. People were really feeling connected to each other and talking to each other on the street. [It broke] down the usual barriers between individuals and groups of people.
What are the most important factors in helping people recover from disasters?
People need to feel safe. People need to have a sense of hope. It helps when people are socially connected, when people have a sense of efficacy, when people have resources to recover. Being able to establish routines. Grieving or mourning your life before this, your sense of security. Altruism, helping others.
How long does recovery take?
People will go through different phases and sometimes feel hopeless, other times feel more positive. Time is going to play out differently for different people depending on what’s going on with them.
Any other advice to people who are still feeling the emotional effects of the storm?
You don’t want to drink too much. You don’t want to take drugs. Other than that, if it makes you feel good, you should go for it. Karen Weintraub