California Institute for Water Resources
California Institute for Water Resources
California Institute for Water Resources
University of California
California Institute for Water Resources

Trauma and resilience in California disaster response and readiness

California National Guard members wade through mud to people trapped inside a Montecito home. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman C. Housman.

Maryam Kia-Keating, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at UC Santa Barbara and a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. Her work focuses on coping and resilience in the context of adverse childhood experiences, trauma, and stress, particularly for vulnerable and understudied populations. She is on Twitter @drkiakeating.

You have done research related to resilience and trauma in the wake of disasters in California. What have you learned?

It's important to pay attention to the psychological impact of disasters. Oftentimes, there is an initial, understandable focus on basic needs and stabilization in the aftermath of disasters. But neglecting psychosocial well-being is short-sighted. There is a lot of empirical evidence demonstrating its impact on other elements of individual and community health and resilience, both initially and over the long-term.

What I have learned in my own research, as well as from work by many others in disaster mental health, is that recovery takes time and has many phases. It can be different for different people who experienced the same disaster, and it is important not to judge one person's experiences and reactions by another's.

For example, after a wildfire, one family described enjoying a newfound sense of cohesion and camaraderie with their neighbors. At the same time, they experienced conflicts and tensions because of the differences in what people needed, and the fact that their reactions that were sometimes poles apart. Part of the issue was that the impact the fires had on homes was sometimes vastly different; some were still standing and others right next door were burnt to the ground.

It's also clear from empirical data that secondary stressors play a major role. The trauma experienced during the disaster is important, but what you face as a result -- financial stress, displacement, and other burdens -- adds another component that predicts overall well-being in the long-term.

A California Air National Guard rescue helicopter with air crews provides search and rescue operations during mudslides in southern California, January 2018. Photo by Staff Sgt. Cristian Meyers.

Can you describe the kinds of issues that face people after they deal with disasters? You've written about both trauma and more positive outcomes, like prosocial behaviors, that emerge.

A traumatic event shakes your core assumptions about the world as a safe place. That feeling of deep uncertainty and disruption to your own safety and the safety of those you love can be terrifying. The added intensity of personal and material losses can lead to complete and utter disorientation. Some people I worked with described a period of time when they just couldn't focus on anything, walking around with glazed expressions, not recognizing familiar people and places. At the same time, well-meaning people and organizations tried to provide them with assistance, but they were challenged to receive the benefits.

Following that initial period, they described disrupted relationships. This led to a sense of isolation and disconnection because they were still struggling even though the disaster itself was long past, and they felt ashamed or that others couldn't understand. Several families I spoke with after losing their homes to a wildfire just fell apart over time. They stopped speaking and went their separate ways. They didn't have any resources left within themselves to deal with the losses they had experienced. In the case of a husband and wife, they coped with the disaster very differently and found they didn't know where their common ground had gone or how to find it again.

It is also important to recognize that, yes, there are positive outcomes that people and communities can experience, including finding new meaning and increasing their altruistic and prosocial behaviors towards others. This kind of resilience, or even what's called post-traumatic growth, can happen for anyone. But, no one should feel flawed in how they respond. It takes time to build the capacity for resilience, and it's especially helpful to take a trauma-informed lens to help support people and communities in developing it, rather than judging those who don't show it right away. We do a lot to encourage people and communities to have their emergency preparedness plans and kits ready, but not enough to equip themselves with psychosocial “resilience readiness” in the face of disasters.

How might people working from more of a natural science background become more trauma informed as they work with individuals and communities affected by disaster?

In Santa Barbara, after experiencing the massive Thomas Fire in December 2017 and hazardous air quality for weeks, we were then pummeled by the horrible tragedy of the Montecito debris flow that took the lives of many beloved members of the community. In the aftermath, there has been a surge of connection between scientists, particularly geologists, and the community. People are extremely anxious to understand the science and engage with researchers to comprehend not only what happened, but the potential dangers ahead.

A Santa Barbara County firefighter searches through a home destroyed by a deadly mudflow. Photo courtesy of Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire.

The kind of scientific information that tends to be helpful, productive, and protective for communities in the immediate aftermath of disasters typically focuses on what's most important for immediate safety and stabilization. These are primary goals that approaches like Psychological First Aid articulate in order to reestablish calm and order and reduce distress. In the longer term, of course scientific information can and should be shared, but it's good to continue to be thoughtful and intentional about how and when to disseminate that knowledge to support community change and resilience. Another great resource comes from journalists who report on disasters and other tragedies, and have thought carefully about how to approach these issues.

I've been fortunate enough to spend time with interdisciplinary groups at conferences focused on climate change and disasters. These conferences have also opened my eyes to the personal distress that natural science researchers and professionals have been experiencing, in part because they are so attuned to the potential risks in our natural environment. This knowledge can heighten their fear and sense of urgency. Those who help communities respond to disaster can experience secondary trauma, or what's called vicarious trauma, which is where people who are responding to disasters or are otherwise exposed to traumatic material can experience the same kinds of post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Oftentimes, people are told to monitor and reduce their exposure to traumatic material, but professionals like first responders and natural scientists who continue to study these issues, don't have that luxury. They can't just turn it off because it comes with the territory. But they would be wise to attend to the role of trauma in their work, to minimize its potential negative consequences. One repository of evidence-informed tools is the Vicarious Trauma Toolkit, which is free and easy to access. I'm hopeful that as we raise awareness about these issues across disciplines that we'll see more energy and commitment towards trauma-informed practices and preparations.

Posted on Monday, April 23, 2018 at 8:48 PM


Great post, and very useful information for anyone who is helping a community cope with a natural resource-based disaster. I'm curious as to whether there are any differences in the psychological stress experienced in slow-moving crises (like drought, for example).  
Thanks for posting!

Posted by Dan Macon on April 24, 2018 at 11:35 AM

Thank you for reading, Dan. I think this is a really important question and one that we had briefly touched on in our original interview, but here is an updated response from Dr. Kia-Keating:  
"In terms of what are often characterized as "slow-moving disasters," such as droughts, the secondary stressors are critical to attend to because they are related but may be more subtle as they arise while the drought progresses: for example, increased airborne dust and pollution, increased risk for diseases related to poor hygiene due to lower access to fresh water, food insecurity issues, etc. In addition, because of the drought, individuals, families, and communities may lose some of the protective factors that they might normally rely upon, particularly social support, because there are increased strains on community connections under increasingly adverse conditions, and networks and families may be forced to separate due to a depressed economy and need for some members to migrate to seek out resources and opportunities. Based on the research, many of the outcomes that have been studied do overlap with what you might see as a result of a so-called 'fast-moving disaster,' such as increased tension, stress, uncertainty, anxiety and depression. It's important for us to continue to examine these issues empirically, so we can improve our prevention and intervention efforts."

Reply by Faith Kearns on April 25, 2018 at 10:44 AM

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