Family Transitions Following Natural and Terrorist Disaster: Hurricane Hugo and the September 11 Terrorist Attack



Disasters affect individuals, families, and entire communities. To date, the primary focus of disaster research has been on identifying the mental health consequences for individuals following natural disasters, technological disasters, and mass violence. However “...the experience (of disaster) cannot be expressed entirely in diagnoses of psychopathology” (Vlahov 2002, p. 295). An exclusive focus on individual mental health outcomes will underestimate the full psychosocial impact of a disaster for many adults, given that the consequences for adult disaster victims often unfold in the context of close relationships. The goal of this chapter is to expand the focus of disaster research by considering how disasters are related to significant family transitions. Exposure to disaster and trauma is more common than we might expect. Lifetime exposure was 22% for natural disasters (Briere and Elliott 2000) and 69% for traumatic events (e.g., combat, tragic death, automobile accident, assault; Norris 1992). Given the interdependence of married spouses (Kelley and Thibaut 1978) and the disruptive nature of disaster and trauma, we would expect these events to reverberate in people’s romantic relationships.

This chapter has four goals. First, I review the literature on major stressful events and consider how they might affect family transitions. Second, I consider natural disaster and family transitions and review our study of marriage, birth, and divorce rates in South Carolina following Hurricane Hugo in 1989 (Cohan and Cole 2002). Third, I consider terrorist disaster and divorce and review our study of how the terrorist disaster of September 11, 2001 affected divorce rates in New York City (NYC) and beyond (Cohan et al. in press). (Please see the published reports for complete details.) Fourth, I discuss divorce as a function of the type of disaster.


Divorce Rate Attachment Theory Marriage Rate Family Transition Mental Health Consequence 



This research was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (R03 HD044694-01).


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Pennsylvania State UniversityPennsylvaniaUSA

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