July 22, 2016
Sandy Takes A Toll On Mental Health
Housing contracts. Damage repairs. Mold remediation. Such are the millions of battles Rockaway residents
are still waging three years after Hurricane Sandy.
These burdens have taken a toll on residents, who, according to a new study by the American Journal of
Disaster Medicine, have rates of depression four times as high, anxiety twice as high, and PTSD six times as
high, as the rest of the United States.
The findings come from Project Restoration, a break-off service from health provider Northwell Health.
For the past two years, the organization has been working in the Rockaways, collecting data to determine
and diminish the psychological effect of Hurricane Sandy on the peninsula.
“The lasting impact on mental health of this hurricane has really been astounding,” says Dr. Rebecca
Schwartz, who has helped evaluate more than 800 residents based on their experiences post-hurricane.
With so much destruction, recovery efforts post- Sandy often focused on the physical, Schwartz said, with
mental wellbeing given little attention. “A lot of people are used to being asked about their housing during
Sandy, being asked their experiences during Sandy. But very few people have been asked: Does it still give
Through a multi-question survey, Project Restoration asked participants about personal aspects of the
hurricane, including whether they experienced flooding? Lost their job? Experienced a death in the family?
Each “yes” increased the subject's exposure level, a summation of just how devastating each participant's
Sandy experience was.
Due to the indiscriminate havoc wreaked by the hurricane, the researchers found almost every participant
had some degree of exposure. They also found almost half of the respondents were showing signs of mental
These findings were highly correlated, Dr. Schwartz said, who saw that the more serious a participant’s
hurricane exposure was, the greater the psychological damage. Because most Rockaway residents had
experienced some level of hurricane damage, the rate of mental illness among participants was 30 percent
higher than the national average.
The connection between mental health and natural disasters is not new. After Hurricane Katrina, a study
by The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry estimated that rates of mental illness doubled. Rates of PTSD
as high as 30-40 percent have been observed in other cities struck by disaster.
“High flooding, people witnessing their homes burning to the ground…that trauma can really result in
post-traumatic stress disorder,” Dr. Schwartz said. “I've had people tell me, ‘I look out the window and just
think how high it is going to go this time?’”
One in every two participants Project Restoration screened showed signs of mental illness. And yet, Dr.
Schwartz said, the peninsula is “lacking” in mental health resources. Many of the providers she knew
disappeared after the storm, leaving few resources for the mentally ill within Rockaway's 11-mile radius.
“I don’t know if it’s enough to handle the true burden of mental health need in the area,” Dr. Schwartz said.
For the past two years, Project Restoration has been trying to alleviate the burden, referring participants
who show signs of depression, PTSD, anxiety, or substance abuse toward health providers, and picking up
the tabs for their metro cards and copays. So far, Dr. Schwartz says 103 people have accepted their help.
Roughly one-third of these participants have been sent to the Far Rockaway Treatment Center, where they
are channeled into a trauma group specialized for Sandy survivors battling addiction.
Program Supervisor Lois Cohen said that by the time many of these patients reach her, they have
“normalized” their mental illnesses, which took root while the peninsula was focused on their more
pressing needs, like shelter. Sometimes, Sandy isn’t even mentioned as a stressor.
Cohen, who resided in a motel for nine months post-flood, said she has found that “when people are
homeless, when people [have] 12 feet of water in their homes, [there is] a push to identify concrete needs.”
While residents focused on physical repairs, “mental health issues and substance abuse issues were left to
ferment.” By the time the patients showed up on the doorstep of the treatment center, their houses had
been rebuilt, while their addictions had ballooned.
But, while these men and women are being treated for now, Project Restoration may soon be unable to
adequately provide for its patients. Once their funding ends, in the fall, the organization will finish its work,
leaving participants to cover their own copays.
Schwartz said that while they are “actively” looking for new grants; she fears Project Restoration will
become another relief agency leaving the Rockaways, now that Sandy’s havoc is no longer fresh. But,
Schwartz laments, “as a lot of these organizations start to pack up and go home from the Rockaways, there
are people that are still living the after-effects of the hurricane.”