Living With Disaster

Younger might seem irrational. But to psychologists who specialize in the mental trauma associated with natural disasters, his response is normal--perhaps even healthy. "After a disaster, there are people who flee and people who stay and become more proactive," says Gilbert Reyes, author of the 2005 "Handbook of International Disaster Psychology." "Both are ways of coping and both are normal."  The key: people who see their responses to disaster as a sign of personal weakness are more likely to suffer long-term trauma, psychologists say. "That's the single best predictor of how long it will take people to recover," says Gerard Jacobs, director of the University of South Dakota's new Disaster Mental Health Institute.

The field of disaster psychology has exploded as an increasing number of people like the Youngers choose to live in catastrophe-prone regions of the country. With each wildfire, hurricane and flood, researchers find more answers to intriguing questions: why do some people choose to live in threatened areas in the first place or choose to stay after a disaster strikes? Why do some rebound so well, while others slip into despair? And what can our response to natural disasters teach us about ourselves?

Younger understood the dangers; he and his wife, Sandra, lost several friends and almost died themselves when the 2003 fires burned their previous house to the ground. They rebuilt immediately--on the same patch of land--a choice they stood behind even as the latest fires blazed around them. "We're near the top of the mountain, so we have an almost-360-degree view," he says. "At night we can see the lights from Mexico. This is our home, and it's still a spectacular place to live."

After the 2003 fire, the Youngers had no such fables. Instead, when they rebuilt, they did everything they could to take control, including a garage that could double as a fire shelter--all steel, no windows. They also cleared brush with religious devotion and stocked their house with fire helmets, gas masks and heavy fireproof coats. But even that may not be enough if there is a next time. "If we were to lose our house again, we might have to pack it in," he says. Everyone has a limit.