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SECTION II:Human-Caused Disasters in the United States

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Human-Caused Disasters Section Introduction

James Halpern

“Man is the cruelest animal.”

- Friedrich Nietzsche

Disasters that are human-caused are more shocking, more horrifying, and typically result in more psychological impairment than those that are naturally caused. A human-caused disaster is often experienced as a profound betrayal. Disasters caused by terrorism or mass violence are most devastating. Many of our Western cultural narratives set people apart from the rest of nature. Extreme heat or cold, storm clouds, or colliding tectonic plates are not willfully choosing to kill or injure us. We live our lives expecting members of our own species to be thoughtful, careful, and certainly not malevolent, especially in life and death matters. Unfortunately this is not always the case, so human-caused disasters shake and sometimes shatter our assumptions about other people. This is especially so when there is immediate physical danger, and/or if there is the witnessing of death or serious injury to another. These two event factors are part of the criteria for the development of PTSD.

Of course, not all human-caused disasters are intentional acts of violence. It could be an accident (e.g., due to equipment failure), due to carelessness or neglect, or intentional malfeasance. A plane crash could have very different causes, and the cause can impact reactions. Consider three airline accidents that all took place in 2009. One was caused by a bird strike (the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson”), another was due to equipment failure (Air France Flight 447), and the third was a result of pilot fatigue (Colgan Air Flight 3407). After the Colgan Air disaster near Buffalo, NY, survivors struggled to understand how the airline could have put their loved ones in danger by overworking their pilots. Survivors are more likely to think that their loved ones died needlessly and blame negligent pilots, or greedy airline officials, or shoddy government regulators - or all three. If a plane is purposely taken down to accomplish a political goal, reactions can be even more severe. When humans perpetrate disasters by setting fires or committing mass murder, survivors are in a state of shock that is often followed with grief and loss and rage. Initially there is bewilderment, followed by a search to understand how this could have been prevented and who to blame for the failure of preventing the tragedy. Survivors of human-caused disasters have an additional burden -a search for justice. The chapters in this section describe events that have intense long-term consequences.

Human-caused disasters include events such as:

  • • Arson.
  • • Oil spills.
  • • Toxic spills.
  • • Transportation disasters (plane/bus/train crashes).
  • • Bridge collapses.
  • • Mass shootings/mass killings.
  • • Terrorist attacks.
  • • Bioterrorism.
  • • Power outages/blackouts.
  • • Violent public disturbance/civil disorder.

In this section, contributors describe their experience at a range of human-caused events. All six events were intentional and all of the authors/responders, with one exception (Pulse Nightclub shooting), lived close or reasonably close to the event. None of the events covered in this section could be considered “accidents.” The Oklahoma City bombing, the attack on the World Trade Center, and the Pulse Nightclub shootings were all acts of terror; the first by a group of domestic right-wing extremists, the second by international Al-Qaida operatives, and the third by a lone gunman whose motives appear murky but who claimed he had an allegiance to ISIS. The perpetrators of the attacks in Webster, NY, Isla Vista, CA, and Newtown, CT, appear to have been mentally disturbed and their intentions remain murky, in part because they all died at the scene. The Isla Vista attacker killed men and women but was motivated by misogyny, a motive that has not received sufficient attention in examining the causes and prevention of mass violence.

Losses and the Myth of Closure

Some human-caused disasters can result in significant property damage, loss of income, and employment. In addition to the loss of lives and profound emotional trauma, the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11 took a heavy economic toll on jobs, not only in the towers but throughout lower Manhattan. Downtown cab and limo drivers, restaurant and hotel workers, and manufacturing personnel were all impacted. One estimate suggested that New York City lost over 100,000 jobs as a result of the attack on the towers (Eaton, 2003). Livery cab drivers or restaurant workers who lost jobs after 9/11, along with their families, may have suffered significantly with little attention or concern from the community.

Income, homes, and jobs are recoverable but lives lost are gone forever. All of the human-caused events in this chapter resulted in loss of life that predicts significant psychological impairment. Families who lost loved ones are often described as strong and resilient, and many are - but they also continue to suffer their grievous losses. It’s sometimes suggested that if a perpetrator is killed or executed, survivors will experience a sense of “closure.” Should DMH workers reassure survivors that when a killer is caught, convicted, or executed, they will experience a sense of relief? Can survivors whose loved ones are murdered ever “put it behind them” and have the capacity to forgive? The short answer is no. This sort of closure characterized by phrases like “let bygones be bygones” or “forgive and forget” is a myth and does not reflect reality for many people in these circumstances. Through extensive interviews with family members after the Oklahoma City bombing, Madeira (2012) found survivors’ reactions were filled with terror and anger. After it was established that perpetrators were guilty, after the convictions, and after the execution of one of the terrorists, there was no relief. Loved ones were not brought back to life and nothing was fixed. There was no closure. When Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, many family members and first responders cheered, but their lives did not go back to normal. Although case studies in this section focus on early interventions, DMH helpers should understand that survivors whose loved ones are killed will, at best, have long-term adjustments to make.

The Complexity of the Response

The response to all domestic disasters will include local and federal emergency management, traditional first responders, Red Cross, Salvation Army, and clergy. Disasters that are crimes bring an even more complex and sometimes chaotic response. For example, the attack on the World Trade Center was a mass transportation incident a crime, and a terrorist attack (not to mention a hazardous materials situation). As a transportation disaster, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) should be in charge of the scene and the event. As a crime, all of local, state, and national law enforcement is involved. Local police, state sheriff's and troopers, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are all on-scene. There may also be a military response with National Guard present. A disaster that is labeled a crime will also bring in local, state, and federal Office of Victim Services personnel who can provide a multitude of services to survivors, including short and long term-mental health support at no cost. The large number of agencies, government, and non-government organizations necessitates clear and thorough planning, studying responses to previous incidents, and carrying out exercises and drills that involve all responding agencies and mutual aid partners. Much of this planning, training, and exercises are carried out in accordance with the National Incident Management System (FEMA, 2004). Several authors of case studies in this section show us that although considerable effort has gone into creating clear plans for how a response is organized, things rarely work as planned.

Secondary Stress in Human-Caused Disaster

In human-caused disasters, the event is the primary stressor but there are always secondary events that compound the reactions. Often, the perpetrators of these disasters are killed or kill themselves at the end of the event. The perpetrators of five of the six attacks described in this section all died at the event. One possible outcome of this result is that survivors are left wondering about the motives of the killers. Sometimes the offender leaves behind emails, online posts, or journals that survivors inspect to get an understanding of the perpetrator’s motives or personality as they struggle to understand how the unimaginable could have happened. The Isla Vista perpetrator left behind a very disturbing misogynistic “manifesto” that survivors, and (horribly) admirers, could read long after the event. Any kind of criminal investigation can lead to revelations about the killer that survivors examine and reflect on, causing them additional longterm stress. The Oklahoma City bombing and the attack on the World Trade Center resulted in criminal proceedings, trials, and legal claims that exposed survivors to reminders and stress.

Several authors of case studies in this section point out that another secondary stressor for survivors of human-caused disaster is exposure to extended media coverage. In the early aftermath of these events, the presence of the press shows families that they are not being ignored. However, journalists can be intrusive, calling survivors at all hours in search of an exclusive story. DMH can help survivors develop a strategy to deal with the press. Later in the response, there are lengthy print media articles, TV specials, and even movies about the events. Survivor families who do not want to be exposed to these distressing reminders can be startled in a movie theater when a trailer for the event is shown to the accompaniment of frightening music.

Another secondary stressor in these disasters is rehabilitation due to injury. Forty-nine people were killed in the Pulse Nightclub shooting and 53 were injured. Many of those injured were also grieving the loss of friends and loved ones. And bear in mind that these injuries can take weeks or months to overcome, and some never fully heal. The wounds are obviously painful in themselves, but they’re also reminders of the loss of friends and loved ones.

Other secondary stressors are anniversaries and memorials for these events. Yearly memorials can often exacerbate distress and symptoms in survivors who predictably show “anniversary reactions.” For an extended time after the event and on anniversaries, survivors can’t help but see flowers, teddy bears, signs, and chalk memorials that a sympathetic public put on display on-site or around the event. DMH helpers can prepare survivors for the sights and sounds that accompany formal and informal memorials.

One final set of secondary stressors for survivors of human-caused disaster is that although the vast majority of citizens want to offer kindness and compassion, there may be a small, malevolent minority spreading misinformation, or claiming loudly that these events never occurred and that victims are frauds and liars. For example, almost immediately after the Sandy Hook school shooting, conspiracy theorists used social media to proclaim that the shootings were “fake news” intended to deprive gun owners of their Second Amendment rights. The public is generally so supportive and sympathetic that it’s jarring for survivors and helpers alike to see and hear from these toxic and malevolent individuals. Helpers can be proactive by trying to protect survivors from this perniciousness, and by reminding survivors of the overwhelming kindness that exists for them. Still, even when the response falls short of outright denial that an event occurred, shootings and other attacks are often politicized by those who want to use them to advance an agenda, to scapegoat a particular religious or ethnic group, or to generally sow conflict, and that can greatly increase distress for all involved.

A Note on Self-care

The human-caused disasters described in this section are all mass casualty events, and contributing authors acknowledge the toll each response took on them and the need for self-care. The Oklahoma City bombing killed children in a day-care center; the Sandy Hook school shooting took the lives of young children and their educators; the Pulse nightclub shooting, the Isla Vista tragedy and the Webster shooting took the lives of young adults; and the attack on the World Trade Center took the lives of thousands and shattered our perception of safety. Responding to these kinds of events will take a toll on the responder. As you read these chapters, please take note of the different self-care strategies the authors used and consider what strategies you would use if and when you respond. Also, please note that only an experienced clinician with a self-care plan should take on such an assignment, so if you’re interested getting involved in this kind of response, think about how you can start to acquire training and experience at less extreme disasters in order to prepare yourself for this most traumatic type of event.


Eaton, L. (2003). Job losses in New York City since 9-11 continue to grow. The New York Times. March 14. Retrieved from

FEMA. (2004). An Introduction to the National Incident Management System (NIMS) IS-700.B, Facilitator Guide, June, 2018.

Madeira. J.L. (2012). Killing McVeigh: The Death Penalty and the Myth of Closure. New York: New York University Press.

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