Reuters

Traditionally, researchers have focused on race, class, and gender to explain mental anguish. A new study suggests they've ignored an key factor.

It's been half a year since Superstorm Sandy converged on New York, displacing thousands of residents, and many people still can't go home again. An estimated 305,000 housing units were damaged in the storm, and while the city's Rapid Repairs program fixed up more than 20,000 in short order, other victims remain lodged in hotels — with a checkout date of May 1. Some occupy a housing purgatory with the DeAngelis family profiled by NY1 this week: unable to repair their home, but not ready to abandon it.

Alexis Merdjanoff, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Rutgers, says the role of housing on post-disaster stress hasn't received enough attention in the past. Traditionally, disaster researchers have focused on race, class, and gender to explain the mental anguish that occurs in the aftermath of a storm. "Racial minorities and low-income individuals and women — they all tend to fare worse," she says.

But when Merdjanoff considered the high rate of mental distress present long after Hurricane Katrina, coupled with the million or so people displaced by that storm, she decided to push beyond this "traditional paradigm" and study the role of the home in recovery, too. What she found may end up flipping the paradigm on its side. In a paper set for publication in Social Science Research, Merdjanoff reports that housing damage — and even simple home-ownership status — are major indicators of emotional distress among displaced Katrina survivors.

"It's really important that government officials and policymakers get in front of these issues of how home damage and displacement are linked to mental health," she says.

Analyzing post-disaster survey information on housing status and mental anguish from displaced city residents, Merdjanoff found an average emotional distress score of nearly 8 on a standard scale — with 8 being the threshold for probable mild-to-moderate illness. From this starting point, she examined the data further and drew three key conclusions.

The first was that, generally speaking, a displaced resident's stress level increased with the degree of housing damage. People whose homes were damaged but livable, for instance, had lower levels of post-disaster distress than those whose homes had been destroyed or remained unlivable. Oddly enough, however, people with unlivable homes were worse off than those with completely destroyed homes — perhaps a sign of some failure to achieve closure.

"It could be really stressful to decide what you're going to do with your home: do you raze it, do home repairs?" says Merdjanoff. "When you start to think about all those steps that you have to go through with a house that's damaged so badly, you can start to imagine that can really affect someone's stress level."

Her second key finding was that displaced renters showed higher levels of distress than displaced homeowners. Many New Orleans renters returned home only to find their old units had been remodeled and now went for a higher monthly rent. Others had to pay rent for a damaged unit just to keep their hold on it. Homeowners may have had more personal attachment to their places, but they also had more control over the situation.

"Disaster policy is really geared toward helping homeowners, not really helping renters," Merdjanoff says. "So the long-term consequences of trying to find somebody adequate housing that allows them to regain a sense of normalcy after a disaster can be a little bit more difficult for renters in certain circumstances."

The third big finding was that once Merdjanoff factored in housing damage on emotional distress, race no longer played a significant role — a result that casts years of research in a new light. That's not to say race doesn't matter, says Merdjanoff, but it may mean that housing damage exacerbates demographic factors. In other words, when it comes to displaced victims, researchers who only consider the role of social factors like race on post-disaster distress may be missing a key piece of the puzzle.

Taken together, the results should guide city officials toward an improved recovery process. Swift home-rebuilding programs should take center stage, with an emphasis on creating a comparable number of rental units — at comparable rents — as existed before the storm. Given the lasting emotional impact of housing damage on displaced residents, long-term mental health services should also be provided for city residents; services that end after six months, says Merdjanoff, will leave some people in the cold.

"Knowing how different levels of disaster home damage can affect people, I think it allows us to better identify those who may need more assistance in the future," she says.

Top image; A home destroyed nearly five months ago during the landfall of Superstorm Sandy is pictured in Mantoloking, New Jersey March 22, 2013. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

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