Why Do People Stay In Disaster-Prone Areas?

In the 30 years I spent living in the West, I heard a constant refrain every spring: "Every year, there are floods in the Midwest. Why do those people continue to live there?"

There was the usual outrage about the cost to taxpayers of flood recovery, without connecting the dots to the price of containing fires or mudslides in the West. (Compare those costs to fighting two wars the last decade.)

Empathy for the flood victims' emotional devastation was sadly lacking among many complainers. Yet all disaster victims, no matter whether they live along the Mississippi River or in the tinder-dry forests of Arizona, have an important thing in common: They share an emotional trauma that can last for years. The depth of that after-effect was perhaps the greatest lesson I learned while researching my book on the historic 2008 floods that devastated Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa during the 2008 floods. (U.S. Geological Survey)

Following a natural disaster, communities heroically come together in the short term. Volunteers run on pure adrenaline. But that kind of energy is not sustainable. When the waters recede and the ashes cool and the headlines move on to a newer disaster, the residents are left to rebuild their lives, and this becomes the hardest work of all.

During my interviews with flood victims in Cedar Rapids, there were always two moments when people broke down. The first was when they recalled the goodness of others, sometimes strangers they would never meet again. The second was when they recalled entering their ruined homes for the first time. They were overcome with loss when they saw the family photos soaked in sewage or their grandmother's shattered china. All the money in our depleted federal treasury cannot compensate for those losses.

The mistake that communities often make is not attending to the emotional distress that comes with the loss of neighborhood ties. Iowa City psychiatrist Janeta Tansey told me that she saw emotional similarities between cancer patients and flood victims.

"I certainly see it in the cancer patients, and I certainly see it in many of the folks that were victimized in a wide variety of ways by the flood. ... At some point, there is a realization that you can't go back. It doesn't mean that the future can't be good in its own way, but part of the grieving is realizing that it will never be the same."

Grief does not make geographical distinctions. Natural disasters do not check license plates. The loss that our brothers and sisters still feel in Oklahoma following those deadly tornadoes is much like what our brothers and sisters are experiencing today in Arizona, following the deaths of 19 courageous young firefighters. How can you begin to replace those lives?

Dr. Tansey said, "As is often the case with stress disorders, there is a certain segment of the population that, as you get further out from the traumatic event, don't seem to make a full recovery from it. Those are the ones that turn into longer chronic conditions. They need some kind of psychiatric care to get it turned around."

They will also need our help long after the cameras are gone. Their loss is our loss. From Boston to Yarnell, New Orleans to Joplin, we are all connected. All who have watched their homes be engulfed by water during a flood or burn like torches in raging wildfires share a feeling of helplessness and shock. How do you rebuild a life? Where do you begin? The disarray is beyond comprehension.

This fire season in the West, some will ask, "Every year, it seems the West is on fire. Why don't those people simply move out of these fire-prone areas?" The question overlooks the obvious. These houses are people's homes and the places where they're rooted. Would we want to be told where to live? I have yet to locate a region of the country that is safe from natural disasters.

Back in Iowa, Cedar Rapids community activist Linda Seger and her husband Gary rebuilt their flood damaged home 20 months later. They were glad to leave the FEMA trailer behind.

Linda told me, "The joy of pulling into the driveway and being able to walk inside the house and know we once again live here is hard to put into words. We appreciate even the little things that are a part of having a home."

This story first appeared in High Country News.