Study: Living Through Hurricanes Makes People Abuse More Substances

Hurricane Matthew barely missed Miami last week.
Hurricane Matthew barely missed Miami last week.
NASA

Miamians rarely have a good excuse to complain about the weather. When the rest of America sits under a smothering carpet of snow, we can still usually go to the beach. Yes, we get some occasional flooding, but our rainstorms usually don't last longer than a Game of Thrones episode. Plus, most of our buildings are pretty wind-proof: When a tropical storm hits, we all still go to the bar.

So if you're the type to get a bit of natural-disaster FOMO when blizzards blanket the Northeast, here's something you can complain about: Our penchant for hurricanes, like last week's Category 4 Matthew, might be making us abuse drugs and alcohol.

A study released yesterday in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease showed that substance abuse jumped in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. More specific, hospitalizations for substance-abuse disorders increased in areas affected by flooding.

"We found that the rate of hospitalizations for substance-abuse disorders increased in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina," the study's authors, which included a few University of Miami scientists, wrote. "This result is not surprising given that a large segment of the local population experienced trauma, which had the potential to increase hospitalization rates at the same time that the city’s population was reduced."

Addiction experts such as the federal government's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration have long warned that natural disasters like hurricanes and tropical storms can increase a population's risk for drug or alcohol abuse.

Addictive behavior in people prone to substance abuse is often triggered when stressful events arise — and few things are more upsetting than having your home swept away in a storm surge. 

But yesterday's study confirmed that scientists are able to predict which areas of town will develop issues with drugs or alcohol after a tropical cyclone hits. The study says that, post-Katrina, areas in New Orleans' French Quarter, Algiers Planning District, and Lower Ninth Ward (the last being the hardest-hit area in the city) dealt with increased drug-abuse issues after the storm.

Substance-abuse hospitalizations increased in these areas of New Orleans after the storm.
Substance-abuse hospitalizations increased in these areas of New Orleans after the storm.
Preventing Chronic Disease

"The Lower 9th Ward emerged as an area with high hospitalization rates post-Katrina, although it did not stand out pre-Katrina, and the Algiers region had relatively low rates compared with New Orleans as a whole," the authors write. 

Before Katrina, the city's overall substance-abuse hospitalization rate was 7.13 people per every 1,000. After the storm, the rate jumped to 9.65 in 1,000.

The study mentions that Katrina hit the city so hard that many people moved to different areas of town or left permanently, possibly skewing the data. But those who were evacuated to Texas also reported higher substance-abuse issues, and researchers mentioned that similar results were found after Hurricane Sandy flooded parts of New York City.

"This information can help those working in disaster response to design, plan, and deploy post-disaster interventions in a spatially targeted way," the study says.

Thankfully, Miami hasn't taken a direct hit from a hurricane since 2005, when Wilma roared across the city. But given the fact that sea-level rise is already flooding huge portions of Miami Beach and the mainland, it's clear the next major storm to hit the city will be a doozy.

Unless you believe what Matt Drudge had to say about Hurricane Matthew, Miamians got insanely lucky last week when the storm missed us entirely after having destroyed parts of Haiti and Cuba. As it swung north, the storm also pounded St. Augustine, Jacksonville, and parts of North Carolina.

Next time the big one does hit, be aware that a wave of alcoholism and drug abuse might follow.


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