Superstorm Sandy continues to affect the lives of tens of thousands of New Jersey residents, in the form of unfinished repairs, disputed claims and recurrent mold.
These after-effects still linger for Sandy-impacted residents and are associated with increased odds of residents experiencing mental health distress, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
According to the Sandy Child and Family Health Study, a representative population study of 1 million New Jersey residents living in Sandy’s path, more than 100,000 New Jersey residents experienced significant structural damage to their primary homes from Superstorm Sandy. Based on findings released from this study, which was conducted by Rutgers University and New York University, in collaboration with Columbia University and Colorado State University, among those New Jersey residents whose homes suffered such damage, 27 percent are experiencing moderate or severe mental health distress and 14 percent report the signs and symptoms of PTSD even two and a half years after the storm.
“Recovery, or stalled recovery, is not as dramatic as the storm and the initial response,” noted David Abramson, the study’s principal investigator. “But it is what exacts the greatest toll both financially and psychologically. Sandy may have occurred nearly three years ago, but it has had an enduring impact on those individuals and communities exposed to it,” he said.
Among the study’s objectives were to help the state identify the health and well-being of residents exposed to the storm and to begin to identify unmet needs.
“The state always knew recovery from Superstorm Sandy would take years,” New Jersey Health Commissioner Mary O’Dowd said. “In the aftermath of Sandy, the Department of Health recognized the need for research and so we funded this study so we could hear the concerns of recovering families and modify our ongoing Sandy programs to better address the needs of those who are still coping with recovery issues. For example, the department recently extended programs for behavioral health assistance and lead screening for another year.”
“It was striking to us and to our field team of over 30 interviewers how Sandy still dominated the lives of so many New Jersey residents, even two and a half years after the event,” added Rutgers University’s Donna Van Alst, the study’s co-principal investigator. “People across the economic spectrum were affected.” Other findings from the study revealed that:
- Children in hurricane-damaged homes are at higher risk for mental health problems than children whose homes who suffered no damage. Children living in homes with minor damage were over four times as likely to feel sad or depressed as children in homes that were not damaged and more than twice as likely to have difficulty sleeping. Children whose homes suffered major damage were affected as well, although, interestingly, those in homes with minor damage demonstrated the most substantial mental health effects.
- The health effects associated with catastrophic damage to one’s home are similar to those felt by people living in deep poverty. A number of the residents whose homes suffered major damage said that they often did not have enough money for rent or mortgage, to pay for utilities, to pay for transportation, or to pay for all the food that they or their family needed.
- Mold was significantly associated with both asthma and with mental health distress.
- Despite the efforts of public officials to urge residents to move out of harm’s way prior to the storm, only one-third of the residents living in mandatory evacuation zones heeded the calls to evacuate their homes.
The findings are based on face-to-face surveys with 1,000 randomly sampled New Jersey residents living in the state’s nine most-affected counties. The research team from the four universities deployed a team of nearly three dozen community-based interviewers to conduct the surveys. In addition, the team used flood storm surge data and housing damage data to identify a “disaster footprint,” the geographic area within New Jersey that was exposed to Sandy.
The 1,000-person sample was drawn to be representative of the 1,047,000 residents living in this disaster footprint. The footprint extends from Cape May in the south of the state to several miles north of the George Washington Bridge, and stretches from the shoreline to over 20 miles inland.