PTSD and the Psychological Effects of Hurricane Katrina

Natural Disasters and PTSD

Street After Hurricane Katrina
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Near the end of August 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. The aftermath of this event led many to examine whether there is a relationship between the disaster and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

All across the United States, people watched as the citizens of the Gulf Coast attempted to cope with this natural disaster. Hurricane Katrina caused a tremendous amount of physical damage. Entire communities were destroyed. However, we are just beginning to truly understand the psychological impact of this hurricane.

Hurricane Katrina is notable not only because it was one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, but also because of the perception that people were abandoned by the government. The issues with federal aid and intervention created additional layers to this traumatic experience.

The Impact of Hurricane Katrina on Mental Health

Researchers at the University of New Orleans, the University of Southern Mississippi, Stanford University, and Arizona State University surveyed 386 people who lived in areas that were affected by Hurricane Katrina. They asked them a number of questions about how the hurricane affected them. What they found is alarming.

Many people impacted by Hurricane Katrina experienced stressful and traumatic events during and as a result of the hurricane.

In fact, people said they experienced, on average, about 2 traumatic events during the course of the storm. Many also said that they had the following experiences:

  • Being separated from their children, friends, neighbors, and relatives
  • Having their home damaged or destroyed
  • Seeing others who were hurt, sick, or had died
  • Getting hurt or sick
  • Seeing crime or violence

In addition, over 50% of people surveyed also reported that they had the following symptoms of PTSD and general distress:

  • Upsetting memories and thoughts about the hurricane
  • Feeling upset after being reminded of the hurricane
  • Trying to avoid thoughts, feelings, and conversations about the event
  • Increased irritability and anger
  • Worries that the event could happen again
  • Feeling on edge and tense

Finally, they found that residents of Mississippi who were affected by the hurricane had a greater number of PTSD symptoms as compared to people in New Orleans; however, people in Mississippi also were found to have more social support than people in New Orleans.

Long-Term Effects

In addition to the immediate aftermath of the disaster, researchers have also examined the long-term impact of Hurricane Katrina on mental health.

  • According to one follow-up study, while PTSD rates gradually declined in the years following Hurricane Katrina, one in six still experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress 12 years following the event.
  • One review published in a 2021 issue of the Journal of International Psychology concluded that lack of community support and economic resources played a role in prolonging the trauma and slowing recovery from the disaster.
  • Another study found that survivors of Hurricane Katrina had more depressive and PTSD symptoms in addition to demonstrating poorer performance on mental flexibility, cognitive processing, and sustained attention tasks. The researchers suggest that even individuals who did not exhibit major post-traumatic symptoms were still affected by cognitive changes that make post-disaster recovery more difficult.

Getting Help

It is clear that Hurricane Katrina had a major social and psychological impact on people in the Gulf Coast region of the United States. If you have been affected by Hurricane Katrina or any other natural disaster, there is help available.

The National Center for PTSD provides a number of fact sheets on the effects of natural disasters and how to cope with them. They also provide links for people interested in sending help or for those who need help, such as finding loved ones or receiving support.

It is also important to seek professional help if you are experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Consider talking to your doctor or mental health professional.

If you or a loved one are struggling with PTSD, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Raker EJ, Lowe SR, Arcaya MC, Johnson ST, Rhodes J, Waters MC. Twelve years later: The long-term mental health consequences of Hurricane Katrina. Soc Sci Med. 2019;242:112610. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2019.112610

  2. Osofsky JD, Osofsky HJ. Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf Oil Spill: Lessons learned about short-term and long-term effects. Int J Psychol. 2021;56(1):56-63. doi:10.1002/ijop.12729

  3. Walling E, Tucker P, Pfefferbaum B, Nguyen C, Mistry A. Neuropsychological outcomes of exposure to Hurricane Katrina and relocation. Disaster Med Public Health Prep. 2020;14(1):89-92. doi:10.1017/dmp.2019.110

Additional Reading

By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.