What You Should Know About Floods
While the number of fatalities varies from year to year, in the United States floods on average kill approximately 127 people annually, making floods more deadly than tornadoes or hurricanes. Many of the fatalities are electrocutions or accidents that occur after the floodwaters have subsided, and car-related incidents are responsible for almost half of the deaths. Floods may strike the same region repeatedly, resulting in recurrent stress for individuals residing in those areas.
Although floods may not destroy buildings in the manner of tornadoes or hurricanes, the process of cleaning up mud- and mildew-filled houses can be emotionally overwhelming and fraught with health risks. Risks associated with the clean-up process include electrocution; infected skin wounds; injuries by wild animals; and illness from poor quality water, food, and indoor air. Cleaning one's home after a flood is an exhausting process, and this fatigue can lead to increased accidents. Losses in agricultural regions include livestock, crops, and farming equipment; thus, the secondary financial and emotional stresses associated with floods can last long after the waters subside. Learn more about floods at the National Weather Service's Flood Safety Awareness website.
Impact on Children and Families
Floods carry risks to psychological as well as physical health. Much of the research on the emotional impact of floods was conducted following the 1972 Buffalo Creek Flood in Logan County, WV. In a town of 5,000 residents, 125 died and 4,000 lost their homes. The vast majority of family members surveyed continued to struggle with severe psychological symptoms up to two years after the flood.
When floods occur, children may witness anxiety and fear in usually confident parents and caregivers. They may see adults' best efforts fail to protect their homes. Children may lose pets, cherished memorabilia, and toys; they may not understand why parents must dispose of contaminated belongings during the clean-up process. Children may also experience the horror of seeing severely injured people or dead bodies. Adults may find it difficult to gauge the emotional impact of floods on children, who often hide their symptoms to avoid worrying them.
As with other natural disasters, there may be a spectrum of psychological responses. The condition of individuals with preexisting emotional and behavioral problems may be exacerbated if their support systems fail, they lack medications, and their routine is destabilized. Individuals may develop chronic emotional and behavioral problems following exposure to pervasive stresses, such as the loss of community infrastructure, of home or employment, or of family or friends. In addition, emotional exhaustion and physical wear and tear may delay the recovery of an individual or family. The severe disruption and stress that floods can cause in a household may lead to an increase in family dysfunction or a risk of abuse.
Children and adults frequently experience traumatic reminders, during which individuals will suddenly relive all the emotions, fears, thoughts, and perceptions they initially had at the time of the flood. Typical traumatic reminders are flood watches and warnings, the sudden onset of dark clouds, bolts of lightning, thunder, and rain.
Common emotional reactions of children and families exposed to a flood:
- Increased feelings of insecurity, unfairness, anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, despair, worry about the future, and dread of a flood reoccurring
- Reactions of distress and anxiety when reminded of the flood
- Believing myths or folklore as to the cause of the flood
- Disruptive behaviors, irritability, temper tantrums, agitation, or hyperactivity
- Clinging-dependent behaviors, especially when separating from parents or caregivers
- Avoiding people or situations Irrational fears (phobias)
- Disturbances in sleep or appetite
- Somatic symptoms, such as stomachaches or headaches
- Increased concerns regarding the safety of family members, friends, and loved ones
- School-based problems, with decreased motivation and a decline in school performance
Adolescents may respond differently than younger children in a flood or other natural disaster. Some may come to believe they will not live long and may:
- Withdraw socially
- Become angry or irritable
- Behave in risky ways