Natural Disasters May Increase Risk of Substance Abuse in Louisiana

In August of 2016, over 1,500 homes, businesses, and other structures were damaged due to serious flooding in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana.

A Storm of Historic Proportions

Tom Carrol, Lafayette City-Parish Public Works Director, labeled the event as a storm of “historic proportions,” and described the process for debris removal that would end up taking several weeks. Many residents from Lafayette Parish and surrounding areas whose homes and businesses were damaged were displaced due to the storm, and were encouraged to register their damage with the Federal Emergency Management Agency at even if they were not insured.

The High Cost of Displacement

Natural disasters like severe storms and hurricanes can do more than damage buildings and properties. When one is forced to evacuate his or her home and community due to unsafe conditions, he or she will likely experience high levels of instability and upheaval.

Housing insecurity is but one factor of displacement that is known to cause an uptick in stress during natural disasters and other traumatic events. But before one can even begin tackling the tasks associated with returning home (like assessing damage, filing insurance claims, making repairs, etc.), one must first wait out the storm, both literally and figuratively.

Storms and Stress

During Hurricane Katrina, it was well document that substance use rates rose in populations who lived in the affected areas. According to research collected during and after the storm, the tragic loss of life and loss of homes and property seemed to drive many people towards chemical dependence as a means of coping with the acute stress they were feeling at the time.

And while the relationship between trauma and addiction is well documented, The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is warning emergency response personnel that victims of natural disasters may be at particular risk for developing a substance use disorder in the aftermath of storms.

Rebuilding Hope

When it comes time to rebuild communities after a natural disaster, much focus is understandably placed on reconstructing utilities and buildings, repairing lost modes of transportation and infrastructure, and increasing access to medical services and other public safety needs.

However, all these efforts can be thwarted if widespread substance abuse takes its toll on affected communities. In light of this information, public health officials in Lafayette Parish and across the state of Louisiana are working on new programming that will make preventing, as well as treating substance abuse, priorities in the wake of future natural disasters.