After a disaster, maintaining close ties with friends and family is a crucial part of recovery. Those relationships could help keep people safe in the moment and even foster better mental health long after the initial disaster, according to new research into the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, that began in 2014.
Sure, that may seem like common sense. But paying attention to how people come together when things go horribly wrong is one way to make communities better help in times of crisis down the road. And it’s not just maintaining a social circle that matters: Who’s in it and how close you are to them made all the difference in Flint, according to a study recently published in the magazine International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction.
It’s not just maintaining a social circle that matters: who’s in it and how close you are to them makes all the difference.
To briefly summarize a long and maddening story: In 2014, Michigan state government cost-cutting measures ended up contaminating Flint’s public water system with lead and bacteria. after, residents reported elevated blood lead levels, skin rashes, hair loss, symptoms of depression and anxiety, decreased fertility ratesand pregnant women exposed to contaminated water gave birth to low birth weight babies than those of other cities. The disaster disproportionately affected the city’s black residents, who make up just over half of the city’s population.
When authorities fail a community, or actually endanger it as they did in Flint, it’s not surprising to see people step up to support one another. The new research shows, however, that black women in particular had a big influence. Women in the survey tended to have more “confidants” with whom to discuss the water crisis than men. Both men and women tended to have more women as confidantes, but black participants surveyed had 31 percent more female confidants in their network than white participants.
There is more evidence from the study that women could have played a key role in preventing even more serious health outcomes. Women were more than twice as likely as men to have blood lead level tests, an important step in treating or even preventing health complications from contaminated water. People with more women in their network were 40 percent more likely to have their blood lead level tested and 33 percent less likely to develop skin rashes.
Women could have played a key role in preventing even more serious health outcomes.
Many types of disasters — storms, heat waves and drought – often harm disproportionately women. The disaster could exacerbate existing inequalities, so they have more challenges to face at the same time. But experiences of being systematically marginalized (whether because of gender, race, income, or whatever) can lead people to rely more deeply on building communities in difficult times. You can rely on your social circle for news and information, such as access to health resources. Collectively, you can push for accountability, and black women like it Sasha Avona Bell in Flint have been at the forefront of environmental justice movements.
And of course, relationships can be a source of comfort and emotional support. In Flint, having more “close ties” in their network, as measured by how often “confidents” kept in touch with each other, was also associated with less severe depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Flint’s study was based on a survey of 331 residents in 2019.
There are lessons learned in Flint that should inform disaster response elsewhere, the article’s authors note: invest in those community connections. Governments should collaborate with community members to bring reliable information and resources to where they are needed most, they write. It is a strategy that some cities have adopted, for example, to prevent illness and death during heat waves. And it could serve disaster responders well, as it avoid misinformation surrounding the chemical spill from the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
“Community leaders know better than anyone what their community needs and how to access resources,” Jenna Shelton, lead author of the research paper and a Cornell University doctoral student, said in a statement. Press release. “Community contexts and connections are important.”