Long-term Health Problems After Natural Disasters Strike

Health obstacles plague communities long after a natural disaster.

Typhoon survivor Manolito Pacurib walks inside his damaged house near shipping vessels that remain grounded after being washed ashore during Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, Philippines, Monday, Dec. 23, 2013.
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It's been nearly two months since the strongest storm ever recorded slammed the Philippines and the U.S. alone has contributed more than $37 million to relief efforts in the devastated country according to Time Magazine. Other countries and international organizations like the U.N. have donated just as much to help decimated communities in the badly damaged province of Leyte return to some sense of normalcy as they begin to rebuild their lives.

Whether it's Louisiana hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or Indonesia struck by the tsunami in 2004, communities that suffer from natural disasters also suffer from the side effects of the disaster long after the cameras have stopped rolling and the aid comes to a halt. Some of the greatest challenges these people undergo is not the natural disaster itself but the residual problems stemming from the disaster, namely the long-term health problems kindled from the calamity.

Courtland Robinson, a professor at the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says that when communities deal with natural disasters they deal with the emergency phase first. These are typically the images flashed across the TV screen immediately after a natural disaster has taken place.

This phase is all about rescue and recovery Robinson explained. Doctors and aid workers "stabilize the health of the population with emergency interventions," he says.

"You need people who have acute trauma care skills to come in, find and rescue those people who are able to be saved," says Robinson. "It's really kind of a triage operation in many cases." Like doctors do in triage, first responders must decide who to save first based on their condition and the resources the relief teams have to help the individuals.

The emergency phase requires "providing things for the community that are realities like clean water, food, temporary shelter, immediately followed by health services," says Ron Waldman, professor of global health at George Washington University and board president of the non-governmental organization Doctors of the World.

[READ: Aid Workers Settle In for Long Haul After Haiyan]

Peace Corps Response Volunteer Christy Grimsley assisted the Red Cross in Sri Lanka after an earthquake in southeastern Asia triggered the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which is known as one of the deadliest natural disasters in history, when more than 230,000 people died. Grimsley says the redevelopment phase follows the emergency phase. While the emergency phase "is the big splash with all the aid and assistance coming in, the development phase is how the communities then put themselves together," she said. This phase is where the less immediate health conditions begin to be addressed.

The long-term health conditions typically addressed during the redevelopment phase include mental and psychological issues, vaccinating and eliminating the outbreak of communicable diseases like cholera, malaria, and measles and reinstating the infrastructure of the health services system.

Mental Health

Mental health problems have proven to be some of the most common side effects of natural disasters. The great loss and devastation disasters incur makes mental health problems like post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, rampant among survivors of these horrific acts of nature.

"Disasters cause a significant amount of stress; the death of loved ones can be particularly traumatic but also the loss of jobs, material goods and livelihoods," Amanda McClelland, senior officer of Emergency Health at the International Federation of Red Cross wrote in an email.

But mental health problems rarely manifest themselves in the early stages of the emergency.

"Mental health and psycho social issues become more apparent as time goes on and can be overlooked in emergencies," McClelland explained.

One reason these mental problems are not examined till later is because in fact the majority of the population will suffer from grief and shock following the event. "That's really normal," Robinson said. "You almost hope to see it," he continued.