The Effects of Natural Disasters on Society

In the wake of a natural disaster, death is not uncommon. Although communicable diseases do occur after hurricanes, death is more so caused by blunt trauma, crush-related injuries, or drowning.1 For example, during Hurricane Katrina, three hundred eighty-seven victims drowned, two hundred forty-six people sustained trauma or injuries severe enough to cause their deaths, and two hundred twenty-six victims had no specific cause of death. For those who had injury-related causes of death, six died from heat exposure, four unintentionally from firearms, two from homicide, four from suicide, three from gas poisoning, and one from electrocution. In total, Hurricane Katrina caused nine hundred eighty-six unfortunate deaths.2

Though the number of immediate deaths caused by Hurricane Katrina is astonishing, even more people perished after she had finished running through her full course. However, if the hurricane itself is not fully responsible for the loss of life, it must be attributed to another factor. Although most people correctly believe that, following natural disasters, there is an increased risk of infectious disease outbreaks, they often believe that it is higher than it truly is. In large part, this misconception is due to exaggeration by the media. The media works to cause unnecessary panic, confusion, and sometimes health-related actions within the population.3

Another false belief is that dead bodies cause disease. Actually, the main cause of disease is population displacement because it leads to other issues such as contaminated water and overcrowding which results in increased contact with infected individuals. Water may become contaminated if a hurricane destroys the sanitation and sewage systems which is extremely hazardous. Contaminated water is especially hazardous after natural disasters because various illnesses can develop from exposure to it.1

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the diseases which can spread after disasters like hurricanes are “cholera, diarrhea, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis E, leptospirosis, parasitic diseases (eg, amebiasis [Entamoeba histolytica], cryptosporidiosis, cyclosporiasis, and giardiasis), rotavirus, shigellosis, and typhoid fever.”4 The factors which could influence the risk of infection of disease include availability of clean water, sanitation and sewage systems, degree of crowding, pre-existing health conditions of the population, immunity to illness, and access to healthcare.1

Population displacement is problematic because it increases the risk of infectious disease outbreaks. Population displacement causes people to move around and crowd places which have taken the least amount of damage during a hurricane. Gastroenteritis, also known as the stomach flu, resulted heavily after Hurricane Katrina in over a thousand evacuees. In overcrowded settings, noroviruses like gastroenteritis are easily spread.5 Acute respiratory infections (ARI) are another major cause of illness and death among displaced populations because of close proximity to other individuals.


People tend to overcrowd certain areas causing population displacement


Hurricane Katrina was not the only natural disaster to see an increase in the spread of infectious diseases. After Hurricane Mitch (1998), the occurrence of ARI increased by four times in Nicaragua.1 The condition of illnesses like tuberculosis can be worsened because of population displacement and reduced access to healthcare. Following Hurricane Katrina though, an emphasis was placed on finding new cases of tuberculosis and continue treatment of the known ones.3 Not only does population displacement allow communicable diseases to spread more easily, but it also causes sudden population influxes in certain areas which leads to unsanitary living conditions.

If people consume unsanitary water, they could contract any number of diseases, including meningitis, cholera, Salmonella, E. coli, and other diarrheal infections. Those directly affected by Hurricane Katrina suffered from diarrhea, tuberculosis, norovirus, Salmonella, cholera.1 In fact, the CDC received reports of the occurrence of diarrheal disease from groups of individuals in evacuation centers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas.4 Hurricane Jeanne forced the people of Haiti to deal with meningitis and he people of Central America had to endure cholera as a result of Hurricane Mitch.6 It is clear that following hurricanes, clean water is difficult to find.

The flooding that results from the occurrence of a hurricane, has hazardous effects such as vector-borne diseases and mold. Standing water can lead to the accumulation of carriers of Malaria and the West Nile virus in the surrounding area.6 The flooding that occurred because of Hurricane Flora led to an outbreak of over seventy-five thousand cases of Malaria.5 Mold is another issue that results from flooding. Hurricane Katrina left eighty percent of New Orleans, Louisiana submerged in water.4 Therefore, it is not shocking that visible mold growth was found in forty-five percent of homes inspected after Hurricane Katrina. The indoor air levels of mold were elevated meaning there was more airborne mold, and more reason for concern about respiratory health.5


The extent of flooding after Hurricane Katrina


Physical damage and health concerns are not the only danger presented to us by hurricanes. By not actively preparing for and dealing with hurricanes, we put everyone already potentially in danger into an even greater risk for trauma. Across cultures, natural disasters greatly affect distributions of people in many different ways. After massive storms like that of Hurricane Katrina, we often find legions of studies conducted to find all the ways in which a population is affected. It has been found that being exposed to disease as well as the innumerable ethical dilemmas that come with attempting to solve such a large-scale problem, can have severe and lasting impacts on the culture of the region affected.

Culture is defined through material and non-material things, and hurricanes often destroy these things and leave behind unparallelled destruction in their wake. Factors that can influence cultural and psychological well-being include time taken to return to normal life, the extent of damage done by the natural disaster, and effectiveness or ineffectiveness of help received. Often times these cultural effects are different between races of people, such as in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. You can see the disproportionate suffering is clearly attributed to the “economic and social stratification that was present in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina that became magnified after the storm.”7

Culture is incredibly important when considering the normative experience of families in America. It is the moral backbone that our nation is founded on, the glue that holds societies together. Without culture, there would be no common connection between people in the same geographical area, or even connections between people of potentially similar upbringings or backgrounds. In the instances involving natural disasters, culture can be deeply affected through the devastation of homes and personal items, as well as the natural social order in towns and urban areas. Often natural disasters destroy deeply personal items that cannot be replaced, which impacts the owners of the personal items extremely upset or angry for losing such a deeply personal keepsake.


Hurricane Katrina brought tremendous loss upon people and left them forever changed


The great losses suffered by the people of New Orleans “exacerbated the uses of substance dependence, psychiatric disorders, child molestation, domestic violence, and other relational difficulties.7 News coverage also highlighted the social stratification in New Orleans during the aftermath of Katrina, and served to differentiate the vulnerable African-American poor from the rest of the population through media coverage of welfare dependency, crime, and familial dysfunction rather than focusing on the real issues at hand- the lack of disaster relief coming in to New Orleans.8

The elderly and children are often disproportionately affected when considering the rest of the population in the area of displacement and damage to property. These losses were also seen to cause a spike in rates of PTSD and general psychic morbidity among the elderly affected.9 Following Hurricane Katrina, there was a rate of PTSD among children as high as 62.5% who remained in the affected area. There were also similar rates of comorbid disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder and separation anxiety disorder.9 The impact of national disasters culturally can be shown through the destruction of property, social order, and high rates of PTSD and other relational difficulties. National disasters also affect other areas of life as well.

Having a thorough and clear understanding of the numerical and social impacts of natural disasters, one must wonder what can we do to make a difference? To make a true and effective difference, we can look at what we have and have not been doing in the past and hold those that dropped the ball accountable. In order to find those accountable, we must answer the question, what is the responsibility of the government when it comes to its people?

Specifically, in relation to hurricanes and other natural disasters, the responsibilities of the government are delegated to a specific government agency known as FEMA. The mission statement of FEMA or the Federal Emergency Management Agency is “Helping people before, during, and after disasters” according to their official website.10 Founded in 1988 with the responsibility of coordinating relief efforts after the declaration of an emergency, “It is designed to bring an orderly and systemic means of federal natural disaster assistance for state and local governments in carrying out their responsibilities to aid citizens.”10 (FEMA Website). Essentially, it is the responsibility of FEMA to ensure that people are properly evacuated, resources and aid are administered effectively, and in the aftermath of the storm, those displaced are safely removed from the area.


FEMA workers helping with hurricane recovery


As we already know, in the aftermath of a storm the chances for an epidemic of airborne and waterborne illnesses increase exponentially. Hurricanes bring colossal surges of water that typically stand for days if not weeks in homes in roads inhabited by countless people. Along with this water comes a myriad of dangers and conditions that can only exacerbate already deplorable conditions. It is vital that agencies such as FEMA fulfill their duty in order to get people out of dangerous and or contaminated environments and with resources one would vitally need after such a storm.

In the documentary titled, “When The Levees Broke”, Spike Lee (2006) recounts the numerous tragedies suffered by those caught in the wrath of Hurricane Katrina.11 Survivors recount stories of going days in shelters without electricity, plumbing, or medication for the sick and elderly. These are the stories of people that evacuated to shelters and people that stayed home to brave the storm because they did not have the resources to evacuate or relocate alike. Specifically, in part three of the documentary a few children explain that their mother passed away from a lack of compressed oxygen while waiting days for aid.11 What this shows, is people clearly died as a direct result of not having access to the proper resources in the aftermath of the storm.

The failures of FEMA are not isolated simply to Hurricane Katrina, most recently in 2017, category 5 Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in a storm that considered one of the worst to ever hit the Caribbean islands on record. Keeping FEMA’s mission statement in mind, as well as the fact the agency had 9 years to learn specifically from events in Katrina (as well as the numerous disaster in between), one would expect FEMA to have been fully staffed and trained with resources in place for Hurricane Maria. In the year and a half since the catastrophic storm, we have learned that over three thousand people died as a result of Hurricane Maria12, it took nearly a year for power to be restored to the entirety of Puerto Rico13, and twenty-thousand pallets of fresh bottled water sat spoiling in the hot sun waiting to be distributed as countless Puerto Ricans had no access to running water.14

While Hurricane Katrina was neither the first nor last hurricane to hit the US, we can learn from this and others in order to prepare in the most effective ways possible and ensure the least amount of loss of life as we can. There were increases in mortality of forty-seven percent15 and sixty-two percent16 increase were found in New Orleans and Puerto Rico respectively. What this demonstrates is the failures of our government have real life or death implications for hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. Studies found that in both Hurricanes Katrina and Maria there were extreme increases in overall mortality.

Every single day millions of people count on the idea that in the event of a natural disaster or emergency, they can depend on the government for information and resources. It is not simply the obligation but the stated duty of the federal government and FEMA to take care of its people in their most desperate times of need. Without the effective distribution and management of aid and resources by FEMA, countless people will find themselves in contaminated environments with little to no access to clean water or vital medications.


Jillian Araya

Tierra Faulkner

Elizabeth Allred



  1. Watson, John , Michelle Gayer, and Maire A. Connolly. “Epidemics after Natural

Disasters.”  Emerging Infectious Diseases  January 2007.

  1. Brunkard, Joan, Gonza Namulanda, and Raoult Ratard. “Hurricane Katrina Deaths,

Louisiana, 2005.” Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness 2, no. 04

(December 2008): 215-23.

  1. Kouadio, Isidore , Syed Aljunid, Taro Kamigaki, Karen Hammad, and Hitoshi Oshitani. “Infectious Diseases following Natural Disasters: Prevention and Control Measures.” Expert Review of Anti-infective Therapy  10 (January 10, 2014): 95-104.
  2. Ligon, B. Lee. “Infectious Diseases That Pose Specific Challenges After Natural Disasters: A Review.” Seminars in Pediatric Infectious Diseases  17, no. 1 (January 2006): 36-45.
  3. Ivers, Louise , and Edward T. Ryan. “Infectious Diseases of Severe Weather-related and Flood-related Natural Disasters.” Current Opinion in Infectious Diseases  19 (October 2006): 408-14.
  4. Spiegel, Paul , Phuoc Le, Mija-Tesse Ververs, and Peter Salama. “Occurrence and Overlap of Natural Disasters, Complex Emergencies and Epidemics during the past Decade (1995–2004).” Conflict and Health,  March 01, 2007.
  5. Holiday, Bertha G. Hurricane Katrina: A Multicultural Disaster, (American Psychological Association), March 2006.
  6. Mann, Nicole and Victoria Pass, The Cultural Visualization of Hurricane Katrina (University of Rochester), 2011. and pass/mann_pass_intro.html.
  7. Jogia, J. et al, Culture and the Psychological Impacts of Natural Disasters: Implications for Disaster Management and Disaster Mental Health (The Built and Human Review volume 7), 2014.
  8. About the Agency. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  9. Lee, S., Pollard, S., Nagin, R., Penn, S., Sharpton, A., Marsalis, W., Belafonte, H., … HBO Video (Firm). (2006). When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. New York: HBO Video.
  10. Fink, S. (2018, August 28). Nearly a Year After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico Revises Death Toll to 2,975. Retrieved from
  11. Sullivan, E. (2018, August 15). Nearly A Year After Maria, Puerto Rico Officials Claim Power Is Totally Restored. Retrieved from
  12. Weir, B. (2018, September 20). 20,000 pallets of bottled water left in Puerto Rico. Retrieved from
  13. Stephens, K. U., Grew, D., Chin, K., Kadetz, P., & Greenough, P. G. (07/2007). Excess mortality in the aftermath of hurricane katrina: A preliminary report. doi:10.1097/DMP.0b013e3180691856
  14. Kishore, N., M.P.H., Marqués, D., PhD, Mahmud, A., PhD., Kiang, M. V., M.P.H., Rodriguez, I., B.A., Fuller, Arlan,J.D., M.A., . . . Buckee, C. O., D.Phil. (2018). Mortality in puerto rico after hurricane maria. The New England Journal of Medicine, 379(2), 162-170. doi:




  1. It seems that in most epidemics lack of government structure or regulation exacerbates the spread of disease. In my group’s case, we were researching the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In the 1980s, most factors of HIV/AIDS were still unknown to scientists and so the government had no previous regulations or public aid set in place to stop the rapidly growing epidemic. Similar conclusions can be seen in the case of hurricanes. A hurricane causes widespread destruction throughout an area, which often results in the physical disruptions of government systems and programs. When the government is unable to step in and fix public resources like access to clean water and sanitation epidemics of these communicable diseases run ramped. Fortunately, after time the government is able to mobilize and groups like FEMA are able to step in and help in times of crisis.

  2. I was unaware that population displacement was as pertinent of a risk as it in in terms of natural disaster related deaths. Clean water is a resource which becomes especially scarce after a natural disaster, and it is important to have resources and information on how to prepare for such an event. I think that it would be beneficial to include information concerning how to properly prepare and plan for a hurricane or natural disaster event. In my opinion, it would be beneficial to include statistics or information which explained the success that FEMA or other operations have had in response to a natural disaster versus focusing on the negative or failing aspects of their operation. The magnitude of death related to natural disasters leads various organizations and agencies to be held accountable for the wellbeing of many individuals. For those who pass away during a natural disaster, the location of their final resting place may be undetermined for some time. The ethical implications associated with this topic creates many difficulties for both agencies and organizations responsible for handling the aftermath, as well as for the family members affected. This related to my research concerning what happens to the unidentified deceased following a natural disaster. From my research, I found that in other countries, some of the victims of natural disasters are never identified, and may be buried in a communal grave without markings. What can be done in order to ensure that victims of natural disasters will have a dignified death / burial? Are there policies or current measures being taken, in accordance with FEMA, which are related to the treatment and protocols associated with natural disaster victims?

  3. I enjoyed reading the post. You guys have well-explained how natural disasters could put people in danger and it could be worse when government support and supply are not in place on time. There is a good example that happens just this year in California, the fire was all over the place for a month while the government did not give any solution until many people died. If the government have better arrangement and preparation for any emergency, the fire would not have last this long and people would not have died. I remember it was 2008 May 12, Wenchuan (a place in China) occurred level 8 earthquakes. It was an enormous disaster to China because caused approximately 70,000 died. However, the Chinese military immediately went to help to find people from the collapsed buildings and saved nearly 90,000. These people are saved because of the well-preparation and the immediate dispatch of the military from the government. In conclusion, government regulation is really important especially for protecting citizens from natural disasters.

  4. During elementary school, a boy my age and his two siblings came to North Carolina to live in the mountains after Hurricane Katrina ruined their home. As they stayed with their grandparents up here, their parents were back in New Orleans dealing with the insurance company and rebuilding, and the children stayed in North Carolina for a few years before moving back. It’s important to recognize the effects of natural disasters such as this and often scary to think about how something that took years to create can be ruined in a matter of minutes. In regards to disease spreading after a natural disaster, I think it’s also important to recognize what we can do as a country to increase awareness as far as evacuation goes. Before hurricanes hit, people are told they need to evacuate the area immediately. However, it’s crucial to not forget those who often do not have anywhere else to go or don’t have the money to evacuate, and this leads them susceptible not only to death but many diseases and sickness that likely could have been prevented. How do you think we can decrease the risks associated with natural disasters and disease?

  5. I found this article really interesting especially when it talked about Hurricane Katrina. I had no idea that the rate of PTSD among children was 62.5% who were left in the area. Years later it can be seen that there was a major racial bias in how FEMA and the Bush administration prepared for the Hurricane as well as how the survivors were portrayed in the media afterward. I had no idea that more people were dying afterward as a result of the lack of preparedness, but assumed that the US government would have learned from previous mistakes. However, this is known to be false because of what just happened with Hurricane Maria. The main commonality between these two natural disasters is the high propensity of people of color in both areas once again displaying the racial bias that is present in this country. Is it even possible at this point in our country to rectify these kinds of biases that are continually perpetuated in government organizations like FEMA? How do other countries compare in recovery after natural disasters like monsoons and tsunamis in South Asia? Does recovery afterward depend on how “developed” a country is or is that not a factor at all? It would be interesting to determine which country has not just the best physical recovery but also offers the best mental health options for recovering from a traumatic event like a natural disaster.

  6. Personally, I have never dealt with any drastic consequences caused by a significant natural disaster. However, I have heard stories and seen the news and I can see how painful, difficult, and dangerous the aftermath can be. Seeing the rate of PTSD in children being 62.5% is eye-opening. Preparation for a natural disaster is important for everyone to think about, but especially for those living in a high-risk area.
    Population displacement is a large consequence of natural disasters. What can we do to reduce this? How can we come together as a nation to give aid and minimize the effects? Staying informed by keeping up with the news is a start, but acknowledging that there are issues that remain even after the disaster is over is also important. Several diseases, lack of clean water, and lack of shelter all exacerbate the already difficult situation of the natural disaster that our fellow Americans had dealt with.

  7. For the TAs and professors: please refer to the second posting called The Effect of Hurricanes on Epidemics of Airborne and Waterborne Illnesses. The footnotes are active and the pictures appear in that one. Thanks 🙂

  8. This article was really informative and descriptive in describing the effects of natural disasters. Knowing little about the impacts of natural disasters, this article did a very good job in not only describing the immediate effects but also the long term effects. I haven’t personally had to deal with any natural disasters but I’ve heard from my parents and relatives about how devastating hurricane Katrina was and the consequences that resulted. It is interesting to see how different parts of the world respond to different natural disasters. How does each country help the victims and help their own self rebuild? Natural disasters have many long terms effects like contaminated water, destruction of towns, and mental health issues like PTSD. Overall, this article was well organized and did a good job in analyzing the impacts natural disasters can have on the population and the area.

  9. I actually didn’t even consider the fact that sanitation and sewage systems could be ruined during natural disasters and affect the spread of diseases during natural disasters like hurricane Katrina. I also really appreciated that there was numerical and statistical data that was incorporated into the description of hurricane Katrina because it makes the argument more compelling than if there was no numerical data. I also found the point of view that natural disasters don’t kill people, but it’s actually the outcomes of the natural disaster that kill people, very interesting. With this in mind, maybe it would have been a good idea to bring in the idea that these calamities could’ve been avoided if people, or even the government, took preventive measures against these natural disasters, especially in places that are more prone to certain types of natural disasters, like hurricanes and tornados. Is the government taking any actions in order to prevent this, and if so what are these preventive measures that are being taken. If there is nothing being done to prevent the damages done by natural disasters in the future, then what are some suggestions you have based on the research that you have done on this topic, and what would be the pros and cons of incorporating these measures into the homes in areas that are more exposed to the elements? Natural disasters have obviously been an issue that humans have been dealing with for quite some time, so why are there no methods of prevention that have already been created over the years?

  10. I had no clue of the effects of sewages and draining systems on natural disasters. This bothers me the fact that not many people globally knw how to prepare themselves for natural disasters since it seems like it’s its effects that actualy kill people. I think there could be more information about how we can educate people on this.

  11. Great article! I wonder what natural disaster cause the most deaths in various countries. Also, which natural disasters do we have the most control over, in the sense of not actually preventing the disasters but just preventing the damage cause by them?

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