My World's on Fire

By Colleen Hagerty

'Unprecedented' was the word of the summer


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My World's on Fire
'Unprecedented' was the word of the summer
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #16 • View online

My World’s on Fire is a free newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. My goal is to help you feel a bit more at ease about our unpredictable world by equipping you with in-depth reporting and insights. I can only do that with your continued support, so please subscribe and share!
In May, I shared some predictions and concerns for the months ahead at the unofficial start of summer, so it only feels fair to do something similar at the season’s unofficial end. Today’s list of links covers a lot of bases: some look at a few of the disasters that have defined this summer, from the California wildfires to the heatwaves that swept the country, while others take a step back to look at some of the larger forces at play.
And I’ll be honest – a number of these are tough to swallow. This has been a summer of one unprecedented event after another, which have been clear calls for us to pay attention to our planet and politics. So, while I don’t suggest clicking through before your morning coffee, I do hope you’ll set some time aside for this list.
Keep on reading for a Q&A with Jamie Hopkins from the Center for Public Integrity about their blockbuster report on mental health & disasters (clearly a topic close to my heart), and a special section you’ll see all September to mark National Preparedness Month.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about these links, or if there are others you think I should share in the next edition. Find me in the comments below, on Twitter, or by replying to this email.
All the news that’s fit to link 📚 🎧 📺 
Extra, extra: The Mounting Mental Health Toll of Disasters
“We’re living in the disaster era.”
This is how the Center for Public Integrity begins their comprehensive investigation into the mental health toll of disasters, which was reported out with partner newsrooms across the U.S. The resulting slate of articles chronicles years of lacking support for survivors struggling with mental health issues (you can find all of the reporting here).
“Nearly 200 responded to the online survey, most from regions repeatedly hit by disasters in the last decade Seventy percent of the survivors said they did not get mental health services”
I reached out to Jamie Smith Hopkins, environment editor and senior reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, and she was kind enough to answer a few of my questions. Read on to learn more about what she learned behind-the-scenes of this work.
Colleen: Were you surprised by any of the findings as you conducted the survey and spoke with officials, or from reporting that came from your partner organizations?
Jamie: Yes, on all counts. Some of my surprise relates to the federal Crisis Counseling Program, the country’s main way of responding to mental-health needs after disasters. Columbia Journalism Investigations’ Dean Russell was the lead reporter on our national story, and he discovered through public-records requests that less than 1 percent of Houston residents got counseling through this program after Hurricane Harvey devastated the city. The reach was so much smaller than I’d expected.
Before COVID-19, counselors often tried to connect in person. Lucas Smolcic Larson with The Island Packet found out that counselors trying to get to Hurricane Florence survivors in South Carolina had to contend with bears, bobcats and alligators as they picked their way through damaged areas. (I literally said “what?!” as I read that.)
Most people told us that they didn’t receive any sort of mental-health services after their disaster experience. That wasn’t a shock, given what we’d heard from experts. But it was still striking to me that a significant number said they didn’t need help, even as they reported multiple emotional challenges they linked to the disaster. Some found other ways to support their emotional wellbeing. But it’s a reminder to us all that we humans have a habit of trudging onward, telling ourselves that we’re managing just fine, even when we could really use a helping hand. It’s not a personal failing to need some assistance.
In August alone, we saw a series of devastating disasters across the country. Watching those unfold, what were your concerns, based on your research? What advice do you have for the people impacted?
What’s especially unsettling about that month is knowing that we should expect more like it over time. The warming world creates conditions that worsen wildfires, hurricanes and flooding. As I watched disasters unfold in California and the Gulf Coast, I kept thinking (and still am thinking) about the people dealing with this stress. It’s not just the disaster itself, though that can be very traumatic. It’s everything that follows, too. If your home is badly damaged, you’re trying to find someplace to stay, looking for contractors, dealing with the complicated process of applying for federal disaster aid, and on and on.
Academic research and our own survey found that the psychological impacts of disaster can linger for years. One of the people we interviewed in Houston about the post-Harvey experience put it this way: “If someone has never flooded, they can’t begin to understand how it devastates a family and a neighborhood.”
As survivors told us their stories, we heard some common themes about what helped them recover. We ended up writing a story just about that. We wanted to make sure people knew how to access the free FEMA-funded counseling help when it’s available, but we also shared other ways to find support and healing.
By the way: Most states have grants to make that free counseling available right now because of the pandemic. Something to keep in mind as we all try to cope with this global disaster. 
And last, I always love asking other journalists if there is either anything they learned along the way of their reporting or that ultimately ended up needing to cut that they would like the opportunity to share!
That’s a great question. We had so much ground to cover in the main story that we couldn’t do more than nod to this issue: For some disaster survivors, part of the trauma is that local decisions contributed to the damage. Some whose homes flooded point to problems such as planning and zoning rules that don’t properly account for heavy rain.
From development decisions to climate change, we’re having an impact on disasters. That means we can make these events less disastrous. It would be a boon to mental health if we do.
Thank you again to Jamie – you can find her on Twitter and more of her work here.
September is National Preparedness Month
Graphic courtesy of
In case you didn’t have it marked on your calendar, this happens to be National Preparedness Month, something you’ll hear more about in later newsletters. To celebrate, I’ll be including an emergency preparedness tip in each edition this month, courtesy of my “Doomsday Pupper” Instagram account. I’d love to hear if you find this feature helpful (or, just as importantly, cute), and if it’s something you’d like to see continued!
And, as always…
here’s a little something for reading to the end.
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