Relief and Recovery: How Do Disasters Disrupt Routine Behavior?

How do disasters affect communities? If you’ve followed the impacts of the recent Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, or Central Mexico earthquake disasters, or if you’ve ever experienced one yourself, you’ll know that the devastation varies from place to place and from disaster to disaster. It can often take years to assess the damage and to reach a new normal. Even harder to assess, though, but in some ways more important, are the effects of various disasters on the people, over time. In a recently published study, sociology professor Michael Cope found that Louisiana communities affected by the 2010 BP oil spill traversed the road to recovery in widely different ways, depending on their core industries, and that community sentiment, in general, served as a protective factor that ameliorated lifestyle disruptions.

 

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What happened in the BP oil spill?

The Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig, contracted by British Petroleum (BP) exploded in April 2010, about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The wreck killed 11 people, and the rig spewed millions of gallons of oil for months before scientists finally stopped the flow. At the time of the oil spill, Louisiana produced 25 percent of the nation’s seafood. The state was also the nation’s second largest producer of natural gas and third largest producer of petroleum. The U.S. government placed strict short-term restrictions on fishing and drilling in areas affected by the oil spill, and the fishing industry suffered for years as a result of the oil spill’s impact on the environment.

How did the oil spill affect the community?

Research on people’s general reactions to disasters shows that those disasters have to be viewed not as “single-point-in-time events, but as processes of social disruption that play out over time.” Dr. Cope’s research relied on a telephone survey administered to people living in communities affected by the oil spill. The survey was conducted in five waves, with the first wave administered while the oil spill was active and the last wave administered in April 2013.

The results suggest that the oil spill disrupted people’s routine behaviors (including sleeping and working). The extent of disruption lessened over time, as people’s behaviors normalized again, but people who worked in (or had relatives working in) the fishing industry experienced the most disruption. This makes sense, given the devastating short-term and long-term impact of the oil spill on their livelihood. Too, residents of affected communities reported disrupted lives three years after the spill.

The good news? People who demonstrated positive sentiment toward their communities (in other words, people who liked the places where they lived) experienced less disruption than others did. Their positive community sentiment buffered the effect of the oil spill on their routine behaviors.

What next?

Dr. Cope, an FHSS professor who co-authored this article with a team from Louisiana State University, wrote that issues like disaster recovery warrant continued attention and research. “This study,” they said, “adds to the chorus of researchers who have long contended that planners need to recognize disasters as social processes linked to long-term antecedents and long-term consequences.”

 

 

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