Disaster training program for teens combats behavioral health effects of 2011 Minneapolis tornado

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In Brief

After a tornado devastated much of north Minneapolis in 2011, the Minnesota Department of Health developed a teen disaster readiness training program to address behavioral and mental health concerns among affected youth. Following the training, teens were eager to become involved in preparedness and contribute to the resiliency of their families and communities.


On May 22, 2011, Minneapolis experienced the worst tornado to hit the city in 30 years. Much of the property damage, 47 injuries, and two storm-related deaths were concentrated on the north side of the metro area.

Specific issues
  • Effect on low-income households. Of the more than 20,000 households affected by the tornado's damage, nearly 8,000 live below the poverty line. The loss of property and personal transportation proved devastating to some families, and the months after the tornado were marked by a significant increase in community and gang-related violence.
  • Emotional impact. A community behavioral health recovery needs assessment conducted with clergy members, clinicians, community groups, and schools revealed that many people suffered from flashbacks, anxiety, and nightmares in the wake of the storm. Domestic violence and substance abuse were also noted as having increased. Schools identified children as being particularly affected by fear, stress, and trauma.
  • Displacement of children. By the end of August, approximately 350 students who were displaced by the tornado and unable to return to their regular public schools registered within Minneapolis school districts.
The practice

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), along with community partners, adapted a disaster preparedness program to focus on the recovery needs of children and teens affected by the 2011 Minneapolis tornado.

MDH's Disaster Readiness Actions for Teens (DRAT) program uses peer trainers to communicate why it's important for teens to prepare themselves and their families for common Minnesota emergencies. The program's goal is "to engage, educate and empower youth to respond safely during critical incidents such as natural disasters, man-made incidents, public health emergencies, and school threats." Sessions focused on planning, making a preparedness kit, and remaining calm and stress-free typically last for an hour, with the option of a longer, more in-depth training.

Following the tornado, MDH and Minneapolis northside partners initially offered 4 DRAT training sessions specifically focused on helping teens recover emotionally from the tornado's effect on their community and sense of safety. Hoping to train 100 young people who could then support their peers, each training was made available to 25 participants. Children and teen participants were sought out via outreach at charter schools, Boys and Girls Clubs, and faith-based youth groups.

Each training session was divided into modules to educate young people about risks, and empower them with tools to build resilience. Modules included:

  • Make a plan. This session focused on the importance of developing a family communication plan and provided materials to get youth and their households started on thinking about risks they might face.
  • Make a kit. Trainers provided starter kits that included a pump flashlight, a water bottle, a compass and whistle, band-aids, a first aid tip card, alcohol-free hand sanitizer, and stress reduction playing cards, while advising young people on how having certain supplies on hand during a disaster can make a huge difference.
  • Stay calm. A mental health professional was on hand to teach participants about psychological first aid, specifically offering points on how teens can recognize the signs of stress in themselves and their friends and how to manage increased stress during a disaster. The mental health professional was also available to monitor participants' emotional reactions to the material and offer additional support.
What made this practice possible?
  • Federal funding. MDH created the DRAT program using federal pandemic influenza PHER grants.
  • Partnerships. DRAT trainings relied on the community assessment efforts of Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department, the City of Minneapolis Department of Health and Family Support, and NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center.
  • State funding. Hennepin County, the City of Minneapolis, and NorthPoint received funding from the Minnesota Department of Human Services to conduct a community behavioral health recovery needs gap assessment, the findings of which indicated a need to tailor disaster recovery efforts toward teens.
  • Community engagement in program development. A focus group comprising teachers, first responders, clinicians, public health and human services workers, mental health professionals, and youth leaders reviewed and offered opinions on DRAT training modules and materials.
  • Community resilience. Following the tornado, many northside organizations and businesses rallied to help neighbors. A disaster recovery center, funding from area foundations, and a variety of nonprofit and faith-based partnerships allowed programs like DRAT to integrate its services into the community.
  • Greater interest in and understanding of preparedness. After the initial training session, 73% of 5th - 12th-graders (N=107) were more interested in emergency preparedness. Additionally, 94% found the information useful; 94% pledged to do something new or different to prepare their families; 89% said they would change the way they think, act, or behave; and 85% would use or share what they learned.
  • Adoption by other organizations. Minnesota Health Occupations Students of America (MN HOSA) and the Minnesota state Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) provided DRAT train-the-trainer sessions at their spring conferences.

Several Minneapolis schools are looking at the feasibility of integrating DRAT training as an elective health course, after-school program, and/or summer school program. Teen Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) in Minnesota have also expressed interest in adopting the program.

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