Trauma-informed disaster response and recovery

About trauma in disaster response and recovery  

Two types of trauma frequently arise during disaster response:  

  • Individual trauma: results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.  

  • Collective trauma: is felt by a group of people. Collective trauma is often felt and faced by frontline communities, specifically communities of color and low-income communities that have faced disenfranchisement, housing displacement, racial discrimination, and poverty. Natural hazards or disasters aggravate this trauma.  

Disasters are highly emotional events that present cascading mental health challenges for directly and indirectly involved with the event. While each person has a different experience with a disaster, their previous exposure to trauma can impact how they interact with and participate in disaster response and recovery efforts. People experience trauma when there is a disaster event, like waking up in a burning house, being in a structure that falls in an earthquake, or watching floodwaters enter their homes. Evacuation can also lead to trauma, particularly when uncertainty about where to go or what is being left behind. The experience of loss and scarcity faced by so many households that experience disasters can manifest in mental health challenges and lead to post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, preventing disaster-impacted households from fully engaging with the response, recovery, and rebuilding. 

As the impacts of a primary disaster ripple and lead to secondary impacts, residents may re-experience the trauma. For example, submitting and appealing claims to FEMA or insurance companies may force disaster victims to relive the trauma of the event to justify assistance. Tenants whose buildings are condemned must deal with the stress of finding new housing, and homeowners must face the uncertainty of rebuilding with the slow pace of recovery aid. Residents may have to make difficult decisions about staying or leaving without access to assistance or alternative housing options. 

Impact on frontline communities  

During the 2017 and 2019 fires in Sonoma County, Spanish-speaking residents reported discrimination in shelters, where they were denied access to critical resources and information based on their perceived immigration status. Communities, especially communities of color that fear police violence during “blue sky” days, maybe re-traumatized by increased police presence during a disaster. The cumulative impact of these responses and barriers to recovery may build mistrust in government institutions, prevent disaster-impacted residents from seeking the help they need, and discourage them from participating in planning processes.  

Trauma-informed approaches to response and recovery 

Entities that engage with impacted communities, particularly frontline communities, should be aware of how trauma manifests and plan trauma-informed responses and processes.   

Having a trauma-informed approach in a disaster requires communities and decision-makers to come together to understand the impact of historical trauma, anticipate potential traumas that might arise during a disaster, and invest in programs and processes that minimize and mitigate these traumas. Doing so will build necessary relationships and trust and break down barriers for impacted communities to engage in the process of recovery. 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), being trauma-informed means “A program, organization, or system [or person] that is trauma-informed realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery; recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system; and responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices, and seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.” 

According to SAMHSA, there are 6 principles or attributes of a trauma-informed approach that an organization or agency should strive to incorporate in its client-facing programs in support of disaster survivors: 

  • Safety: Understanding safety as defined by those served is a high priority. Throughout the organization, staff and the people they serve, whether children or adults, feel physically and psychologically safe; the physical setting is safe and interpersonal interactions promote a sense of safety.  

  • Trustworthiness and transparency: Organizational operations and decisions are conducted with transparency to build and maintain trust with clients and family members, among staff, and others involved in the organization.  

  • Peer support: Peer support and mutual self-help are key vehicles for establishing safety and hope, building trust, enhancing collaboration, and utilizing their stories and lived experiences to promote recovery and healing. The term “Peers” refers to individuals with lived experiences of trauma. In the case of children, this may be family members of children who have experienced traumatic events and are key caregivers in their recovery.  

  • Collaboration and mutuality: The organization recognizes that everyone, all lines of staff and clients, plays a role in a trauma-informed approach. As one expert stated: “one does not have to be a therapist to be therapeutic.” 

  • Empowerment, voice, and choice:  The organization fosters a belief in the primacy of the people served, in resilience, and in the ability of individuals, organizations, and communities to heal and promote recovery from trauma. The organization understands that the experience of trauma may be a unifying aspect in the lives of those who run the organization, who provide the services, and/or who come to the organization for assistance and support. Operations, workforce development, and services are organized to foster empowerment for staff and clients alike. Organizations understand the importance of power differentials and how clients, historically, have been diminished in voice and choice and are often recipients of coercive treatment. Clients are supported in shared decision-making, choice, and goal setting to determine the plan of action they need to heal and move forward. They are supported in cultivating self-advocacy skills. Staff is facilitators of recovery rather than controllers of recovery. Staff is empowered to do their work as well as possible by adequate organizational support.  

  • Cultural, historical, and gender issues: The organization actively moves past cultural stereotypes and biases (e.g., based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, religion, gender- identity, geography, etc.); offers access to gender-responsive services; leverages the healing value of traditional cultural connections; incorporates policies, protocols, and processes that are responsive to the racial, ethnic and cultural needs of individuals served; and recognizes and addresses historical trauma. 

Actions to take 

For community-based organizations and affordable housing providers 

  • Seek out experts in trauma-informed care to support your work and community members. 

  • Incorporate trauma-informed practices into your programs, policies, and processes.  

  • Advocate for local government and emergency management agencies to use trauma-informed care in Emergency Operations Planning and other planning documents. 

For local and State government  

  • Incorporate trauma-informed care into your plans, programs, policies, and processes.  

  • Invest in training from and hiring experts to support the development and maintenance of trauma-informed care throughout your agency.  

  • Ensure that there is trauma-informed care for first responders and other government employees who consistently respond to trauma. 

For philanthropy  

  • Support community-based organizations and local government in accessing training and hiring experts to incorporate trauma-informed care in their work.  

For more disaster specific resources related to trauma and mental health, see: