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On 26 December, 2004, a massive 9.1 earthquake struck the Indian Ocean sending a massive tsunami screaming towards Sri Lanka, Thailand, and even as far as South Africa over 5,000 miles from the earthquake’s epicenter. Over 280,000 people were killed, and over a million more were displaced from their homes (World Health Organization, 2005). The physical loses were great, but equally great, yet not equally as focused on, are the mental and emotional ramifications of such a devastating event. As Dr. Pau Perez Sales states (2005), “There are areas where everybody knew someone who has lost everything or who had one or more family members disappeared. The tsunami will be a landmark in the memory of many communities,” (qtd. in World Health Organization).
Recovering from such a destructive event that affected so many people is a tall order. Aid agencies quickly prepared for a rise in mental health issues in the area and began to devise strategies to increase mental health professional’s abilities to aid survivors in coping with the aftermath. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that over 50% of the affected population would experience mental issues, with 5-10% of those survivors experiencing severe issues. Additionally, a survey of survivors showed over 40% of children affected suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (World Health Organization, 2005).
The potential for disaster recovery in a situation like this is slim. To start, the tsunami struck areas that are generally considered poor. Without things such as insurance, as well as the destruction of their homes and livelihoods, survivors lost everything with almost no hope of recovering what they once had. Most were left asking themselves, “what now?” Additionally, as previously noted, almost everyone affected ended up losing a friend or a loved one, which fractures social structures and can leave survivors without a will to carry on and reach a point of recovery.
I think it is hard to apply recovery principles to this event. Phase 1 in particular was not and does not apply, because there was no real chance to prepare for a disaster such as this. A vast majority of the areas struck by the tsunami were far enough away that they did not feel the earthquake. Perplexed beachgoers even chased the receding waterline before the tsunami struck (Roos, 2018). Additionally, a majority of the mental health professionals working after the event worked through outside aid agencies, and were not there before the event to integrate with the community (World Health Organization, 2005). Phase 2 was not present, because again, most of the aid provided was from outside aid agencies. There was no community bonding and so-called “hero phase”. This carries on into phase 3. This is perhaps the most prevalent phase for this particular disaster, as aid began to come in and survivors began to grasp with the reality of their situation. Phases 4 and 5 are present only because this is where the survivors begin to adjust to their new normal. Seeing the phases applied to this specific scenario, it is my personal opinion that the phases of recovery are better, or rather easier, applied to less-poor areas where disaster preparation has occurred and mental health professionals are more profound within the area.
Roos, D. (2018). The 2004 Tsunami Wiped Away Towns With ‘Mind-Boggling’ Destruction. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/deadliest-tsunami-2004-indian-ocean.
World Health Organization (2005). Tsunami Wreaks Mental Health Havoc. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/83/6/infocus0605/en/.
A community’s response to a disaster and ability to survive and recover is closely tied to its social, cultural, and economical status. Especially, when it comes to the psychological side of a disaster. People with greater means, on average, tend to be more resilient and able to recover from a disaster quicker. This is due to a greater support network and amount of resources available.
Disasters that displace a community, destroying infrastructure, and creating hardships tend to have a greater impact on poorer communities; as they do not have the resources to bounce back. One must take into account that available resources like alternate living accommodations, the ability to miss work, and the ability to afford repairs necessary are less available to the poor. Additionally, poorer neighborhoods have been less likely to be prepared for disaster, historically. In the city of Tamuning, Guam, typhoons hit regularly. While the middle class and above live in fortified concrete houses with storm shutters, the poor tend to live in poorly built tin or wooden shacks. During these typhoons, the tin shacks are demolished, leaving the fragile communities decimated. This in turn perpetuates the issue of poverty, as these people now have trouble getting to work and recovering their belongings, and in often cases; they incur funeral costs and additional heartache. At the end of it all, the wealthy have little to no impact and recover quickly, while the poor are psychologically and economically decimated.
Social factors also play a part in disaster recovery. People who have a strong support network, often benefit from this network during a disaster. Benefits include everything from a place to evacuate, to emotional support during recovery. Social networks tend to be one of the greatest contributors to strong resiliency within a community. During typhoon Dolphin, in Guam, the poor had nowhere to go, their social support networks all resided among others within their community. This lead to unnecessary deaths.
Moreover, cultural factors play a part in disaster recovery. Often, in individualistic societies, communities are less apt to assist their neighbors when in need. In many areas, people are left to fend for themselves. As with social network behaviors, communities that tend to look after each other, fare better during disaster recovery.
History has shown time and time again that humans will always show disregard for the safety of others in their quest for prosperity. In 1919, Boston became a swimming pool of hot, sticky molasses. This happened because “the tank used had not been strong enough to hold the molasses” (Molasses, 2019, para 5). The storage tank at the United States Industrial Alcohol Company ruptured with 2.5 million gallons of molasses inside. It engulfed the workers in the building, everyone around it, and destroyed several buildings and the train line. This is as close as it gets to a volcanic eruption in Boston. This stuff was hot enough to burn you alive, and once you were engulfed in it, its like being stuck in a vat of superglue. “In all, 21 people and dozens of horses were killed in the flood. It took weeks to clean the molasses from the streets of Boston” (Molasses, 2019, para 4). This was a man made disaster in it’s purest form, since a molasses volcano is impossible in nature. Concerning the five phases of a disaster, some applied and some didn’t. I will explain below.
Phase one of a disaster, or “Pre-Disaster,” is the time for communities to prepare for and plan for disasters related to their area. During this process, support networks make themselves known to the public at this time as well. I’m fairly sure that this phase didn’t happen. Not only was the city taken by surprise, but it was a very unconventional situation. Even today, I doubt many city planners account for the millions of gallons of molasses that may or may not flow through their streets some day. I mean, how can you possibly forsee something like this as an Emergency Manager? I didn’t even know molasses was stored by the millions of gallons, and had no idea that it had deadly consequences.
Phase two did happen however. This is simply the time in which the event occurs. I am sure there were unsung heroes during this time, since that’s just the American way. Boston magazine states that “the train conductor Royal Albert Leeman: “There’s the elevated passenger line that ran right above commercial street, and when a big piece of the tank severs the main support, a train had just gone by and jumped the tracks. The conductor is able to get out from his vestibule, makes his way across the tangled wreckage and stops another train from plunging to the street below. Those passenger trains ran every seven minutes between South Station and North Station,” Puleo says. “He was kind of a small hero”” (Buell, 2019, para 9). No doubt that there were others who acted in similarly heroic ways.
Phase three probably happened. It is human nature to detach from whatever was lost immediately after the fact. I don’t know if there were any outside agencies involved back then, but I have no doubt that the local emergency services were all hands on deck, along with a significant portion of the population helping the impacted, because ‘Merica.
Phase four, or “disillusion.” set in spades. Once the community began mourning, they started looking for blame. Naturally, they blamed the United States Industrial Alcohol Company since it was their molasses. “After a six-year-investigation that involved 3,000 witnesses and 45,000 pages of testimony, a special auditor finally determined that the company was at fault ” (Molasses, 2019, para 5). Funny enough, the company tried to absolve itself of the act by blaming anarchists and their pipe bombs. In the end, this statement was proven false, and the company paid for their carelessness.
The fifth and final phase of the disaster called “reconstruction” happened, as it usually does. The disaster paved the way for new safety rules across the country. “Virtually all of the building construction standards that we take for granted today—that architects need to show their work, that engineers need to sign and seal their plans, that building inspectors need to come out and look at projects—all of these are a direct result of the Great Boston Molasses Flood” (Buell, 2019, para 16). Take a look around your house. Every load bearing wall, outlet, breaker, and ceiling has a standard or “code” tied to it. You can thank a cost cutting alcohol company for that. Who said alcohol never accomplished something good?
Buell, S. (2019, January 12). Anarchists, Horses, Heroes: 12 Things You Didn’t Know about the Great Boston Molasses Flood. Retrieved February 12, 2019, from https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2019/01/12/great-boston-molasses-flood-things-you-didnt-know/
Molasses floods Boston streets. (2019). Retrieved February 12, 2019, from https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/molasses-floods-boston-streets