Why natural disasters like Harvey may increase drunk driving

Hurricane Harvey wrecked more than homes. It wrecked lives. And it may not be done inflicting its damage.

The immediate aftermath of Harvey, Irma, Maria and other hurricanes has been plastered across our social media feeds and television screens. People fled with only what they could carry, many understanding that they would return to flooded homes and businesses irrevocably destroyed beyond repair.

One estimate by Boston-based catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide estimates that property losses from the record-breaking flooding of Harvey along will range from $65 billion and $75 billion. Hurricane Maria has set all of Puerto Rico back decades.

Yet, the most devastating losses remain the loss of life – and that’s where Hurricane Harvey, Irma and Maria may deal more destruction yet.

The link between natural disasters and drunk driving

Natural disasters can lead to an increase risk of substance abuse and the dangerous behaviors associated with these choices. For instance, researchers examined the rate of hospitalization for substance abuse in New Orleans from 2004 to 2008 following Hurricane Katrina.

The studies have found an up to 30% increase from 7.13 hospitalizations for 1,000 people to 9.65 hospitalizations for every 1,000 people, according to the findings published in the medical journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

“This result is not surprising given that a large segment of the local population experienced trauma, which had the potential to increase hospitalization rates at the same time that the city’s population was reduced,” the authors wrote in the study. “These 2 factors accounted for the high hospitalization rates in areas that lost population.”

It boils down to stress. And disasters like Harvey, Irma and Maria, which washed away a lifetime of memories and items, produce a watershed of stress.

“Whether it is a sudden death of a loved one, or experiencing a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, stress caused by such events is unhealthy and can lead to severe health problems and even death,” said MADD National Law Enforcement Initiatives Manager Ron Replogle. “People deal with stress in different ways and, unfortunately, some turn to substance abuse.”


The good news is that when we have an identifiable stress point, we can prepare.

“It is vitally important that individuals who experience a life-changing traumatic event seek the appropriate counseling to assist them in processing the stress involved. Such counseling is mandated for police officers who experience traumatic events in the line of duty,” he said. “I strongly encourage counseling after anyone experiences a traumatic event, including natural disasters.”

Mothers Against Drunk Driving National President Colleen Sheehey-Church emphasizes that even under stress and after natural disasters, drunk driving is deadly and preventable.

“Ever since my son, Dustin was killed by a drunk and drugged driver, all I’ve wanted is to prevent others from going through the trauma that comes with losing a loved one to a completely preventable crime,” said MADD National President Colleen Sheehey-Church, “During this sad time in our country when thousands have been impacted by a number of recent natural disasters, I want to plead with everyone to please be safe and keep our roadways safe by choosing not to drive impaired.”

Remember, if you see someone driving impaired, please call 911.

If you are a victim or survivor of drunk or drugged driving, please consider calling our national 24/7 Victim Help Line at 1-877-MADD-HELP.

Local MADD offices in areas affected have been impacted by the hurricanes. While we have attempted to continue services, we have had to close some offices and limit services in some areas.


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