Disasters of various kinds are widespread. About 3 million people worldwide have been killed and 800 million adversely affected by natural disasters and other calamities over the past two decades (Weisaeth, 1992). In the United States, "re, "oods, hurricanes, tornadoes, severe tropical storms or windstorms, and earthquakes have left approximately 2 million households with physical damage and injuries (S. D. Solomon & Green, 1992). Injuries and damages from "res, "oods, storms, and earthquakes are estimated to be experienced by 24.5 households per 1,000 (Briere & Elliot, 2000; Rossi, Wright, Weber-Burdin, & Perina, 1983).
Historically, research on health effects of stressful life events commenced with clinical records of individual reactions to war. Following the American Civil War and World War I, shell shock and battle fatigue became known as extreme reactions to this kind of stress. After World War II, studies on the long-term effects of the Holocaust and other war-related events, such as the devastation of Hiroshima, were conducted. Disasters unrelated to war have been investigated by psychologists since the 1970s. At present, a broad variety of disasters, ranging from tornadoes and "oods to "re and toxic spills, are being examined for their health impact on individuals and communities. A comprehensive overview of disaster characteristics and postdisaster response is given by Meichenbaum (1995) and Schooler (2001). A cataclysmic event quali"es as a disaster according to the amount of damage done and the amount of assistance required. The power of the event alone is inadequate: A powerful earthquake in a desert may not be considered as a disaster, whereas one of the same magnitude in a city would qualify because of the resulting substantial damage. In addition to harm sustained, considerable disruption to people*s lives can also factor into the de"nition of disaster. Disasters represent one of the most threatening situations a person can experience (Schooler, 2001).
This section deals with distinctions that have been applied to characteristics of life events and disasters. Objective characteristics of a stressful encounter in"uence the way people appraise them cognitively as challenges, threat, harm, or loss. Severity, duration, and ambiguity of a stressor, among other characteristics, make a difference when it comes to appraisal, emotions, coping, and outcomes. Loss of loved ones, academic failure, injury, job loss, divorce, and disasters that affect an entire community can be categorized along a number of dimensions, including predictability, controllability, suddenness, and strength of impact, and so on. A common distinction is the one between normative and nonnormative events. Normative refers to anticipating a certain class of events that naturally happen to many individuals at certain times during their lives and are expected, for example, school transitions, marriage, childbirth, academic exams, retirement, death of parents, and others. In contrast, nonnormative events pertain to rare or unexpected events, such as disasters, accidents, or diseases. We can prepare in general for a broad array of potential harm, but we do not know when and if such events will occur.
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