A new survey taken four months after Hurricane Harvey flooded the Houston area reveals that more than half of the residents in Harris County, Texas, were still struggling to recover from the damage. The massive storm in August 2017 displaced more than one-third of the area’s population.
The report, sponsored by UTHealth at the University of Texas and compiled by the Institute for Health Policy at the School of Public Health, gathered data from a mobile device survey of 500 Harris County residents, ages 18 to 54, in late December 2017 and early January 2018.
In the survey, the residents reported how the storm affected their mental and physical health. The findings show unprecedented levels of serious psychological distress (SPD) among those directly affected by hurricane damage.
“What we found was that even though recovery around us looks to be moving at a quick pace, a fairly high percentage of people are still looking for alternative housing or have substantial unmet needs,” said Stephen Linder, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Health Policy at UTHealth School of Public Health and co-author of the report.
The survey reveals the following: Overall, 18 percent of Harris County residents showed symptoms of SPD in the period since the storm (the national rate is 4 percent); 37 percent of those whose vehicles were seriously damaged had SPD symptoms; and among those who had serious damage to their home, SPD peaked at 48 percent.
By comparison, the Health of Houston Survey in 2010 found that only 8 percent of Harris County residents met the criteria for SPD.
Among those residents who suffered serious damage and reported signs of psychological distress, only 30 percent considered mental health care a pressing need.
“The reason for this could be two-fold. First, not all people who experience signs of SPD recognize it as a problem that needs addressing. Second, even when getting mental health care is recognized as a need, in terms of priorities, something else might take precedent, such as repairing a home, replacing a car or applying for disaster assistance,” said Dritana Marko, M.D., co-author of the report and faculty associate in the Institute for Health Policy at UTHealth School of Public Health in San Antonio.
The study found that the storm also took a serious toll on people’s physical health. Almost 22 percent experienced a worsening of an existing health condition, a physical injury or some new illness during or right after the time of the hurricane.
Among residents who reported physical injury or illness: 39 percent reported physical injuries, 26 percent contracted infections, 22 percent suffered respiratory problems and 10 percent had worsening of existing chronic health conditions. Less severe conditions included allergies affecting 5 percent and depression/anxiety, headaches and skin rashes, each affecting 3 percent.
However, in the face of physical and emotional devastation, Harris County residents also showed remarkable levels of generosity and perseverance. Of those who evacuated and have yet to return to their homes, 36 percent are still staying with friends or family.
Household pets were also welcome as 90 percent of evacuees who had pets were able to bring them.
The community came out in force to help their neighbors. Nearly 60 percent of people donated money, clothing and food; 41 percent gave their time and 29 percent provided housing for friends and neighbors displaced by the storm.
“Our conversation about the aftermath of the storm has concentrated on changing the physical environment to mitigate future flooding. Nevertheless, our data suggest that there are less visible, psychological effects that are lasting and, for those with damaged homes, exceed what we saw after other natural disasters. These effects need to be a part of our recovery conversation as well,” added Linder, who is also associate director of the Health Policy Institute at the Texas Medical Center.
The next Health of Houston survey report, due out later this year, will include more detailed information, allowing researchers to compare indicators pre- and post-disaster, as well as measure recovery eight months after Harvey.