Some of us grow stronger after the unthinkable happens — Western’s disaster researcher tells us why
Story by Hilary Parker (’95)
Streets are strewn with debris: roofs ripped off, cars overturned, and glass shattered from windows. Your neighbors now live in improvised homes of scraps of wood and cardboard. You search for family and friends in shelters and makeshift hospitals. It’s been weeks since you turned on
a light, flushed a toilet or warmed a baby bottle. With bridges collapsed, roads block you in and keep aid and recovery out. You and your neighbors are on your own.
Hardships like these are very real for people around the world who fall victim to natural disasters, from the devastating landslide this spring in Snohomish County to Super Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines last November. David Sattler, professor of Psychology, traveled to the Philippines in the weeks after the typhoon to interview survivors. Sattler has made many such trips in his 22 years as a disaster researcher, learning about the mental health of people living in the aftermath of calamity.
These days, his research explores fundamental questions about who grows stronger after disasters: How does adversity brought on by catastrophic stressors promote resilience? When does living through a natural disaster cause us to reflect on what provides meaning in our lives?
These questions are central to a phenomenon known as “post-traumatic growth” or “resiliency.”
A WAY TO MOVE FORWARD
Disasters threaten our feelings of control, predictability, safety and trust, Sattler explains. They make us question when and if our lives or those of loved ones will be threatened. Regaining our confidence in each of these areas is vital to getting back on course after a traumatic event.
For many, the recovery process also includes counting their blessings.
“It is not uncommon for people to reflect on their lives as soon as five weeks after a disaster. They are asking essential questions about what they value most and what gives life meaning,” Sattler says. “This can give strength and hope and offer survivors a way to move forward.”
In his surveys, Sattler asks survivors if they have had an increase or decrease in feeling they can “count on people in times of trouble” or in “appreciating each day more.” These are two of the items on a scale measuring post-traumatic growth.
One response Sattler finds particularly interesting is the answer to the statement: “I have made new friends.”
“Eighty percent of people – across the world and following hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis – tell us they made new friends in the initial weeks during recovery,” Sattler says.
After Super Typhoon Haiyan devastated areas of the Philippines, almost three-quarters of survivors reported to Sattler that they had discovered they are stronger than they thought they were.
And 68 percent reported they are “learning a great deal about how wonderful people are.” Sattler says these numbers are similar to those reported by survivors in Thailand after the Indian Ocean Tsunami—the fourth deadliest disaster in history.
“People need help and want to help,” Sattler says. “It’s extraordinary to see communities come together. The care and compassion we show for one another in times of need is a vital lesson.”
Sattler has been traveling to the sites of natural disasters since 1992. Just two weeks after he began his first tenure-track position at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, Hurricane Andrew hit Florida. He and a group of students packed up a van and drove 14 hours south to interview survivors. Sattler began his career studying mental health in the aftermath of hurricanes and earthquakes across the U.S., the territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Dominican Republic.
Shortly after arriving at Western in 2000, he traveled to El Salvador with a psychology graduate student after an earthquake destroyed the region—they experienced a powerful aftershock. He also conducted research in India following an earthquake that killed 20,000 and destroyed 400,000 homes.
He and a graduate student traveled to a region of Indonesia destroyed an earthquake and threatened by volcanic eruptions.
One of Sattler’s biggest projects is his work in the wake of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, which killed about 250,000 people in 2004. Sattler and a graduate student traveled to Thailand six weeks after the tsunami and again 12 months later. On that second trip, with his sister, Heidi Philips, a licensed clinical social worker, he discovered stress levels remained high as rumors of another tsunami rippled through the shelters where many of the survivors lived.
Sattler interviewed one woman in her late 70s who was living in near-constant fear. She didn’t know what caused the tsunami in the first place, nor did she know the warning signs that another was on its way—the lack of predictability and control caused her extreme anxiety.
Sattler and Philips explained the warning signs of tsunamis and how they could be predicted. “The weight of the world seemed to evaporate,” he says.
This interaction got Sattler thinking about how he could disseminate this information to a population that didn't have the resources to learn about disaster preparedness or recovery through mass media such as newspapers or television. He decided on an education center. And so was born the International Tsunami Museum – thanks to a little help from a Western connection.
KNOWLEDGE BRINGS PEACE OF MIND
Back at Western, Sattler discussed the museum idea with Dale Dinnel, then the chair of Western’s Psychology Department. Dinnel mentioned it to the owner of the Thai House restaurant in Bellingham, who in turn suggested Sattler contact her brother-in-law who owned a restaurant in a town in southern Thailand that had been hit by the tsunami.
Restaurateur Lim Phong had seen the tsunami coming that morning and was able to rush several people to safety on the upper level of his restaurant. Phong volunteered to house the museum in an unoccupied space next to his restaurant and oversee its day-to-day operations.
Sattler and a group of undergraduate students designed exhibits with a graphic artist at Western; four students traveled with Sattler back to Thailand to paint and install the exhibits. The museum was up and running less than two weeks.
In its first year, 10,000 people visited the museum, both tourists and residents. Sattler set up a partnership with a local nonprofit organization, and donations to the museum provided clean drinking water and lunches to children at local village schools, repaired school buildings, and built a house for orphaned children.
Schools brought children by the busload to the museum. For children too far away to visit by bus, Sattler and his students created a video with a cartoon elephant narrator to help explain tsunamis and their warning signs in a safe, approachable way for kids.
The museum and video are the kinds of projects that typify Sattler’s desire to share what he learns with the public, Dinnel says. “What he has to say is not just academic. It’s something we can use in everyday life.”
IT TAKES A TEAM
Traveling with a team of research assistants to communities ravaged by disaster all over the world is a feat unto itself.
“The logistics are a nightmare,” Sattler admits.
“A lot of that type of research is about the connections you can make and how quickly you can get there,” points out Dinnel, who says Sattler does an extremely good job at both.
One of Sattler’s key connections for the Philippines was Richard Atienza, a University of Washington lecturer who teaches Tagalog, one of the official languages of the Philippines. Atienza translated the survey and accompanied Sattler to the Philippines over winter break. He also introduced Sattler to the mayor of the town they visited; she in turn assigned some of her own staff members to help the team.
After surveying hundreds of Filipinos in the aftermath of the typhoon, Sattler found that many survivors expressed fears of global climate change.
“Global warming is a unique source of stress for survivors in the Philippines,” Sattler says, separate from factors commonly associated with posttraumatic stress, such as fear of loss of life or loss of resources. The survivors who talked to Sattler understood that temperatures are on the rise across the globe, creating warmer temperatures in the oceans, and feeding bigger and stronger typhoons.
But what about those who face personal “catastrophes” that shake our sense of well-being, such as going through a divorce or losing a job?
“Our research shows people are fairly hardy when they lose ‘object resources’ such as a home or a car,” Sattler says.
Where individuals often struggle, he continues, is when their “personal characteristic resources,” such as feelings of optimism and hope and their self-esteem, are threatened.
Job loss is a prime example of how anyone might begin to cycle down into what Sattler calls a “resource loss spiral.”
Our financial stability, sense of self related to our job and self-esteem may take a hit first, then optimism falters as the search for new employment wears on. Each additional loss makes a timely recovery even harder.
“We need to develop interventions and programs to help people minimize these losses, especially of personal characteristic resources, and to replenish them in a timely way,” Sattler says.
Sattler takes great pride that in its own unique way, the tsunami museum did just that for the Thai people. It helped them re-establish feelings of control and predictability and showed them that millions of people around the world donated time and money to help them rebuild their lives. Millions cared about their condition. "It made them feel grateful," Sattler says.
A GREATER GOOD
Looking back over his 20-plus years of travel to disaster-torn communities, Sattler’s experiences have left him with an indelible imprint of hope.
“It’s difficult to see people coping with extreme loss—knowing that it will take years for communities to recover and knowing somewhat of the hardships that await ,” Sattler says. “Like them, I find I need to reflect on what's essential and provides meaning. It’s heartwarming to see communities pull together and to witness true caring and compassion.
“Resilience in the face of adversity is a strong testament to power of the human spirit.”
Hilary Parker (’95, Journalism) is a freelance writer based in Bellingham. Her most recent story for Window magazine was about History Professor Randall Jimerson and his family’s donation of a piece of civil rights history to the Smithsonian.