Hidden Epidemics: About the project

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Volunteers and Navy sailors unload bottled water in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. (Photo available from the Center for Public Integrity.)

The Center for Public Integrity and Columbia Journalism Investigations collaborated on this project with newsrooms around the country: IowaWatch, California Health Report, Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, City Limits, InvestigateWest, The Island Packet, The Lens, The Mendocino Voice, Side Effects and The State.

We created our survey for disaster survivors and mental-health professionals with guidance and vetting from Sarah Lowe, clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Yale School of Public Health; Elana Newman, professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa and research director for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University; Gilbert Reyes, clinical psychologist and chair of the American Psychological Association’s trauma psychology division disaster relief committee; and Jonathan Sury, project director for communications and field operations for the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.

No government agency in the United States regularly tracks the psychological outcomes of disasters. And while academic studies may shed light on specific events, the questionnaire was meant to understand experiences from multiple disasters across the country, furthering on-the-ground reporting. It is not a formal, randomized survey. Respondents participated voluntarily and without compensation. For that reason, our results may not represent the general experience of disaster survivors.

In all, 197 survivors and 41 professionals responded from 17 states and Puerto Rico. Our questions focused on climate-related disasters — hurricanes, floods, wildfires — within the last 10 years, as well as COVID-19. We asked about financial, physical, behavioral and emotional outcomes, questions modeled on professional standards for mental-health surveys. We did not include a few responses in our findings because they came from people commenting on disasters other than wildfires, hurricanes or floods.Public Integrity’s Kristine Villanueva led audience engagement on the survey. She and journalists Megan Cattel, Kio Herrera, Molly Taft and Alex Eichenstein assisted with that outreach. Rebekah Ward translated the questionnaire into Spanish. Dean Russell, Kristen Lombardi, Villanueva and Jamie Smith Hopkins developed it, and Hopkins analyzed it.