Colorado Flood: Will Social Support Recede With the Waters?

Some thoughts about why social support wanes after disasters.

Posted Sep 19, 2013

(Co-written with Lee Daniel Kravetz, writer and journalist)

Adam Silverman, the managing editor of the Burlington Free Press, monitored the situation in Colorado this past week as 14 inches of rain cascaded from Rocky Mountain National Park into Boulder, Fort Collins, and beyond.  The news hit particularly close to home, as the waters damaged Adam’s childhood city of Greeley.  Though he was 2,000 miles away in Burlington, Vermont, he was overcome with concern for his parents, who still lived in the area, and felt a strong desire to help Colorado back on its feet. 

Adam wasn’t alone.  As soon as the disaster struck, police, firefighters, volunteers, and relief agencies like HelpColoradoNow and Samaritan’s Purse U.S. Disaster Relief arrived to search for, and support, survivors.  As in most natural disasters, many of the people and organizations who arrived to help were relative strangers to the flood-afflicted areas.

This response is what psychologists Krzysztof Kaniasty of Georgia State University and Fran Norris of Indiana University of Pennsylvania call the “heroic phase” of disaster support, and it’s typical of virtually every major natural disaster of the past century.  Joplin, Missouri, for instance, a town of 50,000 people destroyed by a half-mile-wide tornado in 2010, received three times as many volunteers as there were residents over the 7-month period following the disaster.  And thank heavens for these good samaritans.  They help meet thousands of people’s needs for medical care, housing, and emotional support.

But, there’s a flip side to this heroic story.  As one Joplin resident reported to The New York Times, “People have been really generous. But they are not going to come forever…”  Good samaritans are only human.  Despite the best of intensions, there is only so much anyone is capable of doing and there is only so much emotional energy available to invest.  It’s hard to be heroic all the time.

And therein lies another all-too-common reality of natural disasters.  Eventually, this heroic phase ends and support diminishes, oftentimes before the physical and psychological needs for such support have been completely met.  Like the heroic phase, this pattern of support withdrawal is so common that it can be seen clearly in almost every natural disaster. About two decades of research have documented this kind of push-and-pull dance between sufferers and helpers following tragedy. As Kaniasty and Norris put it in their 1996 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article, “The initial period of intense affiliation, heroic sacrifice, and altruism eventually gives way to the harsh reality of grief, loss, and destruction.”

In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed more than 200,000 people and displaced more than a million more, people and organizations around the globe responded.  Governments pledged more than five billion dollars in aid, and humanitarian workers streamed into the beleaguered country.  Yet, organizations and individuals didn’t keep up such efforts forever.  People began cutting back on the amount of assistance they gave, whether it was monetary, practical, or emotional.  Governments didn’t fully fulfill their promised aid amounts or didn’t fulfill them quickly enough.  Six months after the earthquake, 98 percent of the rubble remained un-cleared and long-term recovery from the disaster had barely begun.  The reality is that victims had received a lot of support.  Billions of dollars were disbursed.  Thousands of good people traveled to Haiti to lend a hand, some of whom remained there for years. But, almost no amount of support could keep pace with the level of need that the Haitian people suffered, a disheartening and frustrating reality for victims and aid workers alike.

 “I expect that if you come back to some parts of Colorado, The Big Thompson Canyon U.S. Highway 34, for example, in a year, you’ll see those parts still have a long way to go,” says Frederick Silverman, Adam’s father, who with Adam’s mother, Barbara, was landlocked for several days in Estes Park, Colorado, once the flooding began.  The damage is so great, he says, that he expects it will take years to fully rebuild the infrastructure, bridges, and roads, and get businesses and agriculture from the Colorado Rockies Front Range all the way to the state’s eastern borders back to pre-flood levels. 

The need for support will continue to be high, but, if past disasters are any indication, the amount of support actually offered probably won’t be.  

Despite the initial heroic outpouring of support, many disaster survivors are left with the perception that nobody is there for them, that nobody cares.  This sense of isolation and estrangement is what Kaniasty and Norris refer to as the absence of perceived social support, and dozens of research studies shows that low perceived social support can be emotionally damaging.  As we’ve all heard victims of traumas, tragedies, and losses say, “You learn who your real friends are and who they aren’t.”  Unfortunately, this lesson can be powerfully disheartening.

So, while the rapid mobilization of support is a predictable part of disaster, the deterioration of that support and the sense of alienation that comes with it are too.  All this paints a pretty bleak picture for the survivors of the recent floods in Colorado.  But, according to Kaniasty and Norris’ research, there’s a surprisingly simple—one could even say, obvious—fix.  Luckily for those of us who know someone affected by the flooding, it’s something that we have control over.  Be there.  Continue to be there.  Don’t stop being there, whether it’s in person, over the phone, or through email; whether it involves monetary support, practical help, or simply emotional support.  The world might inevitably draw down its aid, but friends and family members who know somebody affected by floods can help buffer the sense of isolation and estrangement that can result.  Something as simple as a phone call can help to demonstrate that residents are not abandoned, even when the heroic phase has ended.  Our personal outreach can make a difference.

For more information about the authors, please visit:

More Posts