What Disaster Survivors Really Need

The deeper needs of human beings post-disaster.

Posted Nov 11, 2020

Simon Hesthaven/Unsplash
Source: Simon Hesthaven/Unsplash

This guest post is by Dr. Geoffrey Sutton.

“The need for safety, personal dignity, and respect can be more powerful needs than those in the usual list of basic needs.”

Imara pointed to the shiny, taut skin on the recently burned leg of Malika*—the young woman in front of us—and then told us the story of the 2008 Kenyan genocide.

Neighbors attacked without notice. Malika and others ran to the local Eldoret church for safety. But soon the sacred became profane. An altar became a funeral pyre. A torrent of flames engulfed them. Some fled, but machete-waving warriors carved the life from stragglers. Women without homes or possessions lost even more to sexual violence. Here in the camp, not far from Nairobi, wounded souls ate meager portions of rice, drank bottled water, washed clothes in cold tubs, and struggled to survive.                               


I’ve learned and unlearned some things about true needs from people like Malika who have survived disasters. Here’s just a taste of what I’ve learned:

Needs don’t come in pyramids. According to Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchical pyramid of needs, fulfilling basic needs like food, water, and rest forms a base. Once these are fulfilled, people might pursue higher-order needs, like the social need to belong or the need for self-esteem.

People have basic needs, of course. The Kenyan survivors had small gray tents, portable toilets, and an outdoor pump for water. Convoy of Hope provided rice. And bowed heads moved slowly toward the Red Cross nurse’s station. Relief agencies appeared adept at meeting these important needs.

Writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Louis Tay and Ed Diener identified several universal needs for people in 123 countries. Fulfilling basic needs was a strong predictor of both high evaluations of life and a decrease in negative emotions. Deprivation of basic needs hurts, but fulfillment of basic needs does not contribute much to positive feelings. And another important finding: Needs can be independent contributors to well-being. So, as each different need is fulfilled, people experience incremental improvement in their lives, as well as a decline in bad feelings.

People don’t live by bread alone. On May 4, 2007, a tornado nearly wiped out my wife’s home town of Greensburg, Kansas. Disaster response teams soon arrived with basic supplies. One Sunday, my wife and I took a break from helping and joined old friends on a concrete slab, which marked the spot where a church once stood—now it provided a sacred space for a communal lunch. In addition to the meal, spiritual and social needs were met.

It’s not clear where spiritual needs fit in any hierarchy. For many, spiritual needs are basic needs. Spirituality is not all about meaning in some esoteric sense of a narrative that weaves tragedy into a story of life-defining purpose. Spirituality includes deep feelings and familiar sacred routines. In Kenya and in Kansas, spirituality meant connecting with others who have shared a powerful, life-altering event and are grasping for a sense of certainty in the face of chaos. It’s true, of course: Many draw on faith traditions to guide their spiritual renewal with familiar songs and community prayers. These familiar acts, and the secure feelings they engender, nourish spirituality and connect us to a past and a hoped-for future.

The second need is social. The meal subserved the greater need to be with others. Stories need to be told and retold to good listeners. Worries and frustrations must be shared along with photos and memories of loved ones lost or missing. Plans for rebuilding or moving are floated tentatively as if survivors can’t be sure what the future holds anymore. As Tay and Diener found, meeting needs for respect and social interaction were more important in predicting positive feelings than the fulfillment of basic needs.

It would be a mistake, of course, to think that all people meet their spiritual and social needs in the same way. Some people are mad at government leaders or God. Expressing gratitude feels a bit inauthentic when you wonder where help was when all hell broke loose. And some folks prefer to be alone or in small groups rather than to mix with crowds or wait in long lines. Cultural norms vary and so do the preferences of individuals and families within a host culture.

A refuge is not always a safe place. Tragically, whether people have escaped a natural disaster or one produced by human violence, vulnerable persons are often subject to repeated trauma on the journey to safety or after arriving at a refugee camp. History is replete with examples of women taken as the spoils of war. As reported in the New York Times, the plight of migrants today reminds us that women are still exploited financially and sexually.

The need for safety, personal dignity, and respect can be more powerful needs than those in the usual list of basic needs. Women report not eating or drinking to avoid using toilets where they could be sexually assaulted by guards. Some women refuse to leave war zones because smugglers demand sex for a place on a boat or a financial discount. Some would rather die than be raped. Still others report sexual and other forms of physical abuse by fellow migrants as they are forced to live without privacy in tents and shelters. Well-lit toilets, privacy, and an ongoing assessment to screen out predators are vital safety needs. 

Survival is complicated. James survived his tour of duty in Vietnam, where he was exposed to Agent Orange. His relative silence and dark sunglasses kept family at an emotional distance. One day the glasses came off and James told me of his work among the dead. For him, the smell of death lingered with the images and robbed him of sleep. Keeping quiet and closed off helped him manage inner explosiveness.

Memories are multi-sensory images that may be tagged with excruciating sounds, rage-evoking scenarios, and vomit-inducing smells. Recovery includes removing the power of the past to intrude on the present. Unlike the removal of a bullet, these internal injuries have multiple sites. Those who heal do so at different rates and attain different levels of wellness, with or without specialist interventions. Some need to see surviving a disaster as a lifelong process. Sometimes hidden scars remain for life, even though they lose the power to disrupt survival.

Badges of Honor

Soldiers are recognized for their valor in combat. Health care workers are honored with applause in the evening after a long day battling Covid-19. Some honors are worn on uniforms, while others rest on shelves. But how do we honor survivors?

Here’s what my mother wrote about a Nazi bombing raid: “Just before we reached the corner to turn into our road, we heard the bombers and the anti-aircraft guns … I really got scared … I ran as fast as I could, with shrapnel whizzing by me just missing my face.” Dad compared her run to the stories of her running for her school team. On the next day, my father brought home a piece of shrapnel, which she could add to her other medals. I still have that misshapen medal.

Eventually, people in transition from victims to survivors walk away with a memory, rather than walking away from a memory. Souvenirs adorn the walls of many homes; I think survivors need medals, too.

Geoff Sutton, used with permission
Source: Geoff Sutton, used with permission

The names in the stories above are pseudonyms.

Geoffrey W. Sutton, Ph.D., is a psychologist, author, speaker, and emeritus professor of psychology at Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri. His recent book, Living Well: 10 Big Ideas of Faith and a Meaningful Life, illustrates the science behind a meaningful life and time-honored virtues like courage, humility, and hope. Follow on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and his website.


Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0054346

Tay, L., & Diener, E. (2011). Needs and subjective well-being around the world. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(2), 354–365. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023779