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Natural Disasters

What's the Problem?

Most people know they need to take special steps to protect themselves during natural disasters such as floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes. However, many people don't realize that taking precautions to protect themselves after a disaster can be equally as important. For example, 50% of tornado-related injuries suffered in one Illinois city occurred during rescue attempts, cleanup, and other post-tornado activities. The environment after a natural disaster can be unhealthy and unsafe. These problems are made worse by interruption of social, medical, and community services. Hazards that can result in injury, illness, or death include:

  • physical hazards (e.g., fire, displaced objects, unstable building structures, downed power lines, overexertion during cleanup, and animals that may attack humans out of fear or because they are injured and in pain);
  • chemical hazards (e.g., gas leaks, carbon monoxide from generators, and chemicals released from industries and other sources into food, water, or the environment);
  • disease hazards (e.g., food or water contaminated with sewage, an increase in mosquitoes that can spread disease, and crowded living conditions); and
  • psychological hazards (e.g., post-traumatic stress syndrome, anxiety, depression, fear, rage).

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Who's at Risk?

Research shows that the number of people who die or become ill or disabled due to natural disasters is increasing. Every state and territory in the United States has communities at risk from one or more natural hazards. People who are most at risk include:

  • those who live in housing that is substandard or for some other reason cannot withstand the disaster;
  • those who live in geographic areas prone to severe natural events, such as coastal areas, floodplains, and seismically active areas; and
  • those who are not educated about how to protect themselves before and after an event.

Can It Be Prevented?

Much of the illness, injury, and death following natural disasters can be prevented if people are educated about the specific steps they need to take to protect themselves. Several factors keep people from adequately protecting themselves after a disaster including:

  • lack of knowledge about what to do or not to do;
  • where to obtain health and safety information;
  • ignoring health and safety information;
  • psychological effects of the disaster that impair clear thinking;
  • disaster-related interruption of communication channels that could be used to share health and safety information; and
  • interruption of social, medical, and community services.

The Bottom Line

Many of the injuries sustained because of a natural disaster occur after the event has happened. Special steps need to be taken during, as well as after an emergency in order to protect our health and safety. Natural disasters create physical, chemical, disease, and psychological hazards to health and safety that remain after the event is over. Following a natural disaster, authorities will provide information about how to protect your health and safety during clean up and recovery. Using television and radio, they will also let you know when it's safe to return to an area, and whether tap water is safe to use. If you have questions, call local government, health, and disaster-relief agencies or local business, including utility companies, to get information.

Case Example

The Berger family is relieved to survive a tornado that has caused many deaths and injuries. Don, the father, is using a gas generator in his garage to supply power to his family's home during a prolonged power outage due to the tornado. Don wakes up one morning nauseous, dizzy, and weak. He has trouble waking up his wife. Don checks on his children, his 8-year-old daughter won't wake up, and he finds his 6-month-old son dead in his crib. At the hospital, the surviving family members are diagnosed and treated for carbon monoxide poisoning that was caused by running the gas generator in the house.

  • Page last reviewed: February 22, 2011
  • Page last updated: February 22, 2011
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