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Health Effects Of 2008 Floods On Iowa Students

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

The historic floods of 2008 hit the University of Iowa campus hard, closing buildings, halting classes and displacing numerous programs and departments. Because natural disasters can have significant health effects on affected populations, researchers from the UI Injury Prevention Research Center distributed a university-wide survey to better understand students' flood experiences and the impact on health.

Led by Marizen Ramirez (left), Ph.D., assistant professor of occupational and environmental health in the UI College of Public Health, the online survey was administered to 10,500 summer-enrolled UI students from July through August 2008. A total of 1,404 students participated in the survey.

The results show that a majority of UI students were affected in some way by the floods, including:

-- 55 percent reported UI buildings they frequented were damaged by the flood.

-- 54 percent reported their job was disrupted or lost because of the flood.

-- 33 percent indicated the residences of family or friends were damaged.

-- 21 percent moved temporarily or permanently due to the flood.

-- 13 percent were forced to evacuate their residence.

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-- 6 percent reported their residence (dormitory or non-university housing) suffered damage.

The survey also asked about the health impacts of the flood. Although few students (3 percent) reported physical injury during the flood, the toll on mental health was greater. The researchers found that 7 percent of the respondents had symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The most commonly reported PTSD symptom was feeling emotionally upset, which was experienced half the time or almost always by nearly 12 percent of students. About 7 percent of students indicated increased drug and/or alcohol use after the flood.

"College-aged youth are particularly vulnerable to the mental health effects of a disaster such as a flood since the majority are living independently for the first time without direct parental guidance and support," Ramirez said.

In addition, the researchers found students whose job was disrupted, who were evacuated, or whose home was damaged were four to six times more likely to experience symptoms of PTSD than students who were not affected by any of these factors.

A majority of students received disaster-related information, such as flood status, safety guidelines and sources of assistance, from university mass e-mail communications, which most respondents found to be somewhat or very helpful. Friends (82 percent) and family (56 percent) were the next most common sources of information about the flood.

The most common sources of disaster-related assistance sought by students were friends (17 percent) and family (16 percent). Fewer than 4 percent of students sought help from more formal organizations within and outside the UI, such as academic services, student housing, counselors, the Red Cross and health providers.

"These findings can help university campuses to prepare for and manage future disasters or emergencies and their after-effects," Ramirez said. "For instance, mass e-mails from the university appear to be an efficient means for delivering standard, procedural information such as status updates or safety tips.

"However, since students turn most often to friends and family for help and information, university officials may consider providing resource directories and information sheets to families, dorm facilitators, student government, and student organizations and peer groups on campus," Ramirez concluded.

Corinne Peek-Asa, Ph.D., director of the UI Injury Prevention Research Center and UI professor of occupational and environmental health, and Tracy Young, an epidemiologist with the center, also contributed to the report.