Thursday, September 1, 2011

Natural Disasters and Crime

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

While the east coast recovers from the deluge of hurricane Irene, many communities in the U.S. and the world still struggle to rebuild after suffering tsunamies, fires, earthquakes and floods. Disasters bring out both the best and the worst in human nature. After hurricane Katrina, stories of criminal violence, looting and the slaughter of animals flooded the news cycle. Many feel infuriated by images of frenzied looters hauling luxury televisions down the street. Most of us feel compassion and a need to help victims of these disasters. We know someday we might need the help of our neighbors, volunteers and government workers.

Surprisingly, crime rates often go down in the aftermath of a disaster. A recent study looked at the rate of index crimes, property crimes, violent crimes and domestic violence crimes after natural disasters in Florida. They found that natural disasters significantly reduced index, property and violent crimes, but significantly increased the rate of domestic violence. 

When families struggle for basic survival needs, stress can cultivate the worst behavior. In fact a study showed that the terror of an event, like the terror one might feel watching strong winds crumble your house, causes less psychological distress than the loss of resources, like possessions and social support. When entire neighborhoods and communities disintegrate, psychological breakdowns, and domestic violence increase. When people become desperate and hopeless, psychological deterioration results.

Natural disasters have increased in intensity and frequency over the last 100 years, as predicted by climate change models. Now the Republican Congress suggests legislation to offset any disaster relief expenditures with budget cuts elsewhere. While we do need to find better ways to fund disaster relief, cutting essential services in a depressed economy seems a bit "penny wise and pound foolish." While insurers were hit hard in the last two years from the "unprecedented" increase of natural disasters, most of these companies still remain profitable. Small business losses and the loss of personal income and property cause psychological and economic damage that impact the entire country.

Some good things can arise out of the ashes of disaster. Economic activity can increase, and unemployment can drop for a couple of years, as insurance dollars and rebuilding efforts follow. Many enjoy humanitarian efforts to help strangers. They report a feeling of connection, purpose and gratitude for the opportunity to work with other caring individuals. Studies show volunteering can improve chronic pain, depression and overall well-being. Victims of disasters often report benefits such as improved relationships, closer ties, and improved coping skills.

When we help others we stimulate the pleasure centers of our brain. Those who help others tend to have better relationships and enjoy higher levels of happiness. So in this season of disasters, put on the work gloves and help your neighbor. You'll be glad you did.

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