Only a limited number of studies have explored the effects of cumulative disaster exposure—defined here as multiple, acute onset, large-scale collective events that cause disruption for individuals, families, and entire communities. Research that is available indicates that children and adults who experience these potentially traumatic community-level events are at greater risk of a variety of negative health outcomes and ongoing secondary stressors throughout their life course. The present study draws on in-depth interviews with a qualitative subsample of nine mother-child pairs who were identified as both statistical and theoretical outliers in terms of their levels of disaster exposure through their participation in a larger, longitudinal Women and Their Children’s Health (WaTCH) project that was conducted following the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. During Wave 2 of the WaTCH study, mothers and their children were asked survey questions about previous exposure to and the impacts of the oil spill, hurricanes, and other disasters. This article presents the qualitative interview data collected from the subsample of children and mothers who both endorsed that they had experienced three or more disasters that had a major impact on the child and the household. We refer to these children as exposure outliers. The in-depth narratives of the four mother-child pairs who told stories of multiple pre-disaster stressors emerging from structural inequalities and health and financial problems, protracted and unstable displacements, and high levels of material and social losses illustrate how problems can pile up to slow or completely hinder individual and family disaster recovery. These four mother-child pairs were especially likely to have experienced devastating losses in Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which then led to an accumulation of disadvantage and ongoing cycles of loss and disruption. The stories of the remaining five mother-child pairs underscore how pre-disaster resources, post-disaster support, and institutional stabilizing forces can accelerate recovery even after multiple disaster exposures. This study offers insights about how families can begin to prepare for a future that is likely to be increasingly punctuated by more frequent and intense extreme weather events and other types of disaster.

Author Biography

Lubna Mohammad holds a master’s degree in Sociology from Colorado State University and a dual bachelor’s degree in Social Ecology and Criminology from the University of California, Irvine. Lori Peek is professor of Sociology and director of the Natural Hazards Center in the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. *The authors are listed alphabetically to denote equal contributions to this manuscript.


The authors wish to thank David Abramson and Alexis Merdjanoff at New York University; Edward Peters, Arianne Rung, and Edward Shapiro at Louisiana State University; Kellie Alexander at Colorado State University; and Jessica Austin, Jolie Breeden, and Emmanuelle Hines at the University of Colorado Boulder. This research was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (Award: 1U01ES021497). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences or the National Institutes of Health.