The most recent report of weather-related devastation comes from Oklahoma, a central state in the south of the United States. Yesterday afternoon – Monday, 20 May – a massive tornado formed and destroyed parts of Oklahoma City and its surrounding suburbs, traveling about 20 miles in 40 minutes. Neighborhoods were flattened. Rescue workers continue to search through the rubble of an elementary school where countless children and teachers were trapped by the storm. Deaths tolls have fluctuated between 51 and 91 people within the past hours, with at least 20 of those being children. Undoubtedly, as the debris is cleared in the coming months, those numbers will escalate.
It is nearly impossible to imagine the trauma, shock, fear, and pain of loss which families in Oklahoma now face. Within minutes, everything can be taken from us and, for those in Oklahoma City and Moore, this is now their reality. If you desire to help those affected by this tragedy, please see the link to USA Today, provided at the bottom of this post. There you will find four different organizations which are collecting donations and opening shelters in Oklahoma.
Violence which follows natural disasters may take many forms. Tragically, people take advantage of the general chaos and preoccupied law enforcement following a natural disaster such as an earthquake, a tornado, or a hurricane for personal gain. Sociologists call this a breakdown in the social order. However you choose to look at it, crime rates often rise after a disaster has occurred, including looting, domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual violence. Within recent history, news reports have included such activity following events such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy in the United States and, perhaps to a lesser degree, the 2011 earthquake and 2011/2013 tsunamis in Japan. Child trafficking is also increased following natural disasters, as seen in Haiti after the earthquake there in 2010.
In the wake of a disaster, victim services are limited and crimes may be difficult to report – understandably so considering the enormous upheaval and devastation law enforcement and emergency personnel will combat in the weeks following a storm or earthquake. The trauma of a catastrophic event affects each person in a unique way and some will resort to violence, often as an attempt to regain control after such uncontrollable loss. Violence becomes an unhealthy coping mechanism by which the trauma and pain is prolonged and intensified for victims.
Helga West offers insight into this social phenomenon:
“Sexual violence against women and children who become displaced is historically documented, with the collapse of societal supports, overall increased vulnerability, a lack of companion support, feelings of powerlessness and anger, and unsafe shelter being cited as contributing factors (New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, 2005). During the chaos that accompanies destructive natural or human-induced disasters, some see the opportunity to prey on those who are affected and vulnerable, perpetrating violent crime. We saw evidence of this in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where survivors of the storm experienced muggings, identity theft, aggravated assault, sexual violence, and gang rape (unconfirmed claims of murder have also been reported).
What we know from examining the longer-term impact of disasters and times of emergency is that reported crime rates generally drop in every category except domestic violence, which can increase dramatically (Tucker, 2001). In fact, some communities have seen as much as a 50 percent increase in police reports of domestic violence after disaster (Norris, 2005). Many who have researched this phenomenon suggest that some survivors of natural disasters or other unexpected tragedies feel that life is so volatile and unpredictable that they inflict violence on family members in order to regain some sense of control. Others note that the increased strain on everyday life creates a breeding ground for family violence, which can be fueled by common unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcohol and substance use, self-injury, aggression, etc.”
“Both crisis response and crisis intervention can help to lay the foundation for reducing anxiety and educating survivors and their families on trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, and common disaster responses. It is clear, however, that longer-term trauma support is essential, especially for those with pre-existing trauma, substance abuse, or psychiatric histories.
History shows us that while many individuals will make a full psychological recovery within 12 to 24 months following a disaster; post-event stressors such as the disruption of basic needs, stressful life events (e.g., loss of a home or job, displacement), and loss of internal and external resources (e.g., a sense of control or social ties) can make healing even more difficult (Kilpatrick & Freedy, 1994). Even under the best of circumstances following a crisis, victims often need support far beyond crisis intervention, often for periods of two years or more.
We also know that every individual heals differently and at a personal pace. In order to minimize the social, cultural, familial, and personal impact of destructive events, we need to ensure that programs and services are available for a longer period of time and gain a deeper understanding of who may be at risk or have a more difficult time in the aftermath.
For survivors who have experienced crime and may not have the knowledge, resources, access, or capacity to reach out for help, service providers within the criminal justice system and victim assistance communities need to be especially assertive and understanding to ensure that core victim rights are upheld and that services can be established for those in need. Other providers need to also consider that some of the individuals and families being served may have experienced violent crime, and it is therefore essential that they have an understanding of early signs of trauma, reporting protocols, and safety procedures. Good community connections and collaborations will help to bridge services from one community to the next so that all wounds—physical, emotional, and spiritual—can receive attention.
Survivors of violence can have an especially difficult time coping in the aftermath of disaster. The shock, loss of safety, increased anxiety, fear, and absence of traditional supports can trigger feelings and reactions from earlier traumas. Because survivors may not understand the relationship between “what’s happening now” and “what happened back then” regarding trauma, it is imperative that we foster greater public understanding of the nature and impact of trauma and the interrelation between trauma, substance abuse, and mental health concerns and how this experience can affect health, ability to focus, relationships, sleep, emotional state, and more. Service and healthcare providers, employers, community groups, families, and individuals all need to have a sense of how trauma may impact people and relationships.” – After the Crisis: Victims of Violence in Times of Disaster or Emergency
Despite the destruction and pain so many in the world face each day, there is still hope. We can still find encouragement and good news amidst the very bad.
Fred Rogers told the story, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping’.” His mother was right; while there will always be people who seek to take advantage of another person’s pain and misfortune, there will also be those who, sometimes at risk to their own health and safety, go out of their way to help.
They are the people who enter burning buildings to rescue persons they’ve never met. They are the people who rush to the aid of the wounded on the streets of a city after a bomb has detonated. They are the people who step between a child and a gunman. They are the people who share their meager resources with others. They are the parents who shield their infants from falling debris.
They are people like Muelmar Magallanes who, at the age of 18, sacrificed his own life to save his family and 30 of his neighbors during the Manila typhoon of 2009.
They are people like the rescue teams in Oklahoma who spent the entire night searching for survivors, knowing that another tornado could form at any time and threaten their lives.
The love these people are able to display to their fellow man – seeking nothing in return – is a picture of the perfect, sacrificial love God has for people.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Alex Early wrote:
“How can I trust God today looking at this mess? This weather is literally dark, bleak, and gut-wrenching. And the writers of the Bible lived in this same world with earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes, famines, and plagues and still looked the people of this world in the face and declared in faith that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
So where’s God right now? …there is nothing that happens in this world outside of God’s [control] —but today we have no ultimate answer about why Sandy destroyed so much other than to say that our world has been under a curse as a result of sin (Rom. 8:20) and that because of the good work of Jesus, God has promised that he is going to create a new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21:1) and for that we wait with eager patience (Rom. 8:23, 25).”
God is not an emotional band-aid to be whipped out each time something tragic happens. Saying “God is in control” is not a quick-fix for all of our problems. We still experience heartache and words alone, though powerful, cannot remove that hurt. While I do fully trust God’s love and complete control, I am still prone to ask Alex’s question – where was God when that tornado formed yesterday? Where was He when roofs and walls caved in on children? Where was He when family members received the phone call this morning that someone they loved was missing?
I cannot tell you why God did not stop that tornado, that earthquake, that hurricane, that typhoon, that famine, that person from abusing you and using you and causing you pain. I think it would be wrong of me to try – I do not know the mind and heart of God. I have my own doubts, as well. All I can do is trust that He knows what He is doing, far above anything I could understand, and love the people who are hurting. What I believe about God is wasted and empty if I am not loving people who suffer – acting upon my belief. In the Bible, God commands us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. All the religiosity in the world will fall short unless I am willing to sacrifice myself for another person, just as Jesus suffered and sacrificed Himself for me.
I can tell you this, in the words of David Fairchild:
“…though there may be a thousand objections to the goodness of God and his purposes for allowing such a tragedy, one thing we know for certain [is] our God loves and cares about us enough to suffer with us and for us.
The birth of Jesus into a world riddled with sin is God’s response [to this tragedy]. The cross of Jesus stands as the greatest display of God’s love for us and the loudest declaration of the lengths to which he will go to win our hope. The resurrection of Jesus settles our hearts and reminds us that even though this is not the way it’s supposed to be, it will not always be this way.
God draws near to those who have lost what is dearest to them. And he does so through his people. And when someone asks us, ‘Where was God when this happened?’ we can say with a hope-filled heart and trembling voice, ‘God is in the same place today as he was when his own Son hung on a cross.’ Jesus Christ took all this evil and suffering and swallowed it as a bitter pill. God so loves this sin-sick world that he gave his only Son to it. And whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life with our Father in a world made right.”
To those of you who have lost so much, whether through sickness, abuse, natural disaster, or some other tragic plight, I pray for you. I pray that you will find hope and peace when the world offers none. I pray that you will have strength to endure. I pray that the God who suffered for us so that He might suffer with us now and remove all suffering in the future will speak that hope, peace, and strength to your heart.