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Natural disasters: Conducting research, supporting affected labs

Amelia Karraker
Program Official,
Division of Behavioral and Social Research (DBSR)

Harvey … Irma … Maria … hurricanes that won’t be forgotten any time soon. And, although they don’t have names, let’s not forget the Mexico City earthquake in September and the northern California wildfires in October. We know that the human, environmental, and economic costs of natural disasters are high. Studies by the Environmental Protection Agency show that some extreme weather events such as heat waves and large storm systems are occurring more frequently now than in the past—and this trend is expected to continue.

As we watched these disasters unfold on the news, we saw that people with health problems face particular challenges. Individuals with chronic conditions such as kidney disease or COPD depend on electricity for dialysis machines or oxygen concentrators. People with mobility limitations may have trouble evacuating quickly. And, regardless of their physical health status, many, many people will suffer from psychological issues caused by the loss of property and possessions—and most importantly—of a loved one.

For older adults, such challenges during a natural disaster can be compounded by income and disability status. For example, the deaths of 14 individuals living in a Hollywood, Florida, nursing home from exposure to prolonged extreme heat in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma have focused particular attention on how to best help older people who live in nursing homes and similar settings before, during, and after natural disasters.

What can research tell us about natural disasters and aging?

The shock of these nursing home deaths tells us that formal care is at times significantly deficient in preparation for disasters, with terrible consequences. Yet, a much broader set of issues confronts us as we grapple with the difficulties that extreme weather presents to older adults. How can we better understand the social, psychological and biological pathways through which these extreme events affect health? What are the paths for resilience and recovery?

One recent study found that older adults exposed to Hurricane Sandy in 2012 experienced steeper increases in pain and functional limitations than those who were not exposed. Another study partially supported by the NIA, found that the severity of housing damage people experienced after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami was associated with elevated dementia risk. A third, which also received NIA support, examined the relationship between evacuation before 2008’s Hurricane Gustav and mortality among people with dementia and found that evacuation led to more deaths than staying put.

These and other studies have given us insights into the complex and unique challenges facing older adults during natural disasters. This research also generated more questions on topics such as:

  • Pros and cons of pre-disaster evacuation
  • Providing post-evacuation family and unpaid caregiving, as well as medical care for chronic conditions, including access to medications
  • Measuring immediate and subsequent environmental, industrial, and psychosocial stress exposure following a disaster.

NIH resources for disaster research

When the top priority is to provide shelter, food, and water to people affected by a disaster, conducting research can pose significant response-time and logistical challenges. The NIH Disaster Research Response website has a wealth of useful information about time-sensitive funding opportunities, data collection tools (including social survey instruments and field protocols for environmental exposures), research protocols tailored to disaster research, and training resources. The site is managed by the National Institute on Environmental Health Sciences and is available for use by anyone.

If you weathered a storm

In addition to the damage to homes and other personal property, natural disasters affect businesses, schools, public utilities, and other community resources. NIH has a policy for research institutions affected by natural disasters. If your facility has been closed or damaged, NIH will consider such issues as whether a Federal Disaster is declared; the severity of damage inflicted; the length of time an institution may be required to close or that is needed for recovery; the impact on investigators, human research subjects, and animal subjects; and the overall impact on the community. Submission deadlines for awards and reports can be extended and, in some cases, administrative supplements can be awarded. However, assistance is provided on a case-by-case basis and is not automatic, so be sure to check the website for information.

If you have any questions about NIH resources or policy, or if you’re interested in submitting an application regarding natural disasters and aging, please get in touch with us or comment below.


Submitted by Laura Niedernhofer on December 06, 2017

I believe NIH policy is that grant deadlines may be extended equivalent to the number of days a PI's home institute was officially closed for a natural disaster. I wish this would be re-thought. Preparing for and cleaning-up after a natural disaster takes tremendous effort and time. Each individual's experience is unique. Institutes are often safe havens and therefore are closed far less time than it takes for a scientist to re-establish their home environment and productivity.

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