The physical disruption of Hurricane Sandy is overwhelming, but it can be measured: tens of billions of dollars in damage, lost income, and interrupted business. Catastrophes and their ensuing stress also take a toll on relationships and interrupt our best-laid plans. The human costs are harder to measure, but we can predict some of Sandy’s likely impact by examining the effects of disasters on marriage, divorce, and birth.
Next year, expect to see a rise in the number of marriages in the areas hit by Sandy. Hurricane Hugo hit South Carolina in 1989 at a time when the marriage rate in South Carolina was declining. In their examination of the social consequences of Hugo, Catherine Cohan and Steve Cole found an upward hitch: The marriage rate increased by 0.7 per 1,000 people in 1990 before returning to the pre-storm decline. Although the overall effect was small, it was especially pronounced in the seven counties hit hardest by the disaster.
The marriage-rate boost seems fairly intuitive. People seek security in the face of threats and grow closer to their sources of comfort. (The whole field of attachment theory is based on how this phenomenon plays out.) Catastrophes can also give people a push into the next stage of their lives and provide a reality check about what’s important.
Those same bonding mechanisms should make the already coupled more likely to stay together after Sandy, right? After all, one of the least-known legacies of the 9/11 disaster was its impact on divorce: In September 2001, the number of couples filing for divorce in New York dropped by 32 percent. The researchers who analyzed the effects of Hurricane Hugo also examined divorce rates after 9/11 and found that the drop in filings couldn’t be explained by interruptions to civil services. The decrease falls in line with that following other man-made disasters: After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, divorce rates decreased for the seven counties around Oklahoma City. Perhaps most surprising was the effect of 9/11 on so-called psychologically similar cities: Philadelphia; Bergen County, N.J.; and Los Angeles also experienced significant declines in divorce filings in September 2001. According to the researchers, couples in those cities could easily imagine themselves experiencing something similar to 9/11.
Hurricane Sandy isn’t likely to leave marriages intact in the same way that 9/11 did, however. While divorce rates decrease after man-made catastrophes, they tend to increase after natural disasters. Hurricane Katrina, for example, devastated marriages. The 2005 divorce rate in Orleans Parish was 2.3 per 1,000 people; a year later, it nearly doubled to 4.4. In Jefferson Parish, the rate increased from 2.9 to 3.9. Unmarried people may have fled in the post-Katrina exodus, leaving behind a disproportionate number of married couples, but this finding has been observed after other natural disasters that didn’t experience such a massive outward migration. The divorce bump in counties hit by Hurricane Hugo was slight by Katrina standards—0.3 additional divorces per 1,000 people—but accounted for a statistically significant increase that year before the rate returned to pre-storm levels in 1991. After Hurricane Andrew hit Florida, Dade County’s divorce rate spiked by 30 percent.
Why would people stick together after a man-made disaster but split up after hurricanes? Think of recent hurricanes as the inverse of 9/11: Instead of a large loss of life and relatively concentrated physical damage, the populations grappled with relatively small loss of life but widespread physical damage. After 9/11, people became acutely aware of death but faced no great increase in the everyday stressors that take a real toll on marriage. In these conditions, couples stayed together.