Health & Science

Hurricane Ike’s Impact On Whether Teenagers Drink, Use Drugs

Hurricane Ike surged into Galveston almost three years ago. Along with the physical destruction, the storm brought stress and emotional disruption. Now, a new study by researchers at UTMB shows a startling association between where Galveston teenagers were during the storm and how they behaved afterwards.

Galveston Island after Hurricane Ike
Galveston Island, Texas, after Hurricane Ike Sept. 13. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.)

Every person on Galveston Island was affected in some way by Ike.

Jeff Temple, a psychologist at UTMB, decided to focus on high school students. Temple used an anonymous survey that asked them about drinking, drug use and dating violence.

High schoolers usually take those surveys every few years.

But Temple added an interesting question about where they were during Ike.

“Kids who did not evacuate and were thus exposed to the hurricane itself, we found that those kids were more likely to report substance use and teen dating violence than the kids that did evacuate.”

After the storm, Galveston leaders estimated that 40 percent of the island’s population had not evacuated.

Temple found that if you were a teenager who stayed behind, you were more likely to binge drink, smoke marijuana, and use cocaine.

And boys who stayed on the island were three times more likely to report fighting or sexually assaulting their dating partners.

“So it’s likely that all the kids experienced some trauma, regardless whether or not they evacuated in terms of coming back to their house destroyed or maybe pets or something to that effect. But what we think is going on, that may be a contributing factor anyway, is that the ones that are exposed to the life-threatening event, directly, which is the hurricane in this case that that might have a — contribute a little more to negative health and more risky behavior.”

But that’s just one theory.

Another theory is that teenagers whose families did not evaucate were already more likely in general to use drugs and fight.  

Beth Auslander is a psychologist who works in the Galveston schools.

“You might think, well are those the kids that are at most risk anyway?  I mean, if you can’t leave the island you might have less resources available to leave and therefore these families might be more challenged to begin with.”

Although the cause and effect isn’t clear, Temple says that in the future teachers and counselors may want to pay more attention to students who don’t evacuate — because those students appear more likely to engage in troubled behavior.

But there’s another possible takeaway, this one for parents.

“If you’re trying to decide whether or not to leave, this should absolutely factor into your decision.”

Temple points out that hurricanes, while awful, have one tiny silver lining when compared to other disasters.

“Hurricanes is one of the only traumas that we have some control over our exposure to the actual trauma. You know we have the warnings, so we can evacuate. We can choose to evacuate or we can choose to not evacuate. So we have a little bit of control over that.”

Other studies have shown that exposure to trauma increases substance abuse and mental illness.

But Temple says this is the first study he knows of that examines behaviors like teen dating violence.   

From the KUHF Health Science and Technology Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.

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