Study: Disaster Triggers Births, Marriages, Divorce

Cohan and Cole studied birth, divorce and marriage rates for the entire state from 1975 to 1997, comparing the trends in the hard hit counties with those that were spared the brunt of the storm.

The divorce rate across the state had been declining in the years prior to the hurricane, but in 1990, the year after the storm, it rose. The number is not astronomical — only 30 more divorces per 100,000 residents — but it's significant because it shows a reverse of the previous downward trend. Similarly, marriages had been in decline, but rose by 44 per 100,000 in 1990. Births, which had also been declining, jumped by 41 per 100,000 that year.

But the following year, 1991, the rates and trends returned to their level prior to Hugo. The fact that these trends were consistent throughout the counties most affected by the storm, and not those that were spared, shows that they were "specific" to the storm itself.

In other words, Hugo did it.

Stress and Babies

The "spike" in births and marriages after the storm is not exactly what everyone might expect. For example, some studies have shown that stress, like that caused by facing one's own mortality, can lead to depression and anxiety that decreases sexual desire. That, obviously, should cause the birth rate to drop.

But other studies have shown that stress resulting from a disaster can cause us to seek out "life affirming" activities, like getting married or having a baby.

"You can't get more life affirming than having a baby," Cohan says.

What we are left with here is a picture that is a bit fuzzy. Who's to say what any one individual is likely to do after a disaster? Some people, apparently, can't hack it.

"People are confronted with the realization that life is short," Cohan says. "It's too short to be in this unhappy situation."

So they get a divorce and seek happiness elsewhere.

Others, for whatever reason, take a very different course, strengthening their relationships with others, and maybe even bringing in a new life.

What it all adds up to, Cohan says, is this fundamental fact. A lot of people need help after a natural disaster, even if they don't know it.

Life is, after all, very short.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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