Building Disaster Resilient Gulf Communities

Melissa Finucane is a social and behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation and is the CRGC director.

(Click to enlarge) Melissa Finucane is a social and behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation and is the CRGC director.

CRGC facilitates societal use of science

How can communities build resilience to adverse events such as oil spills or hurricanes? A community’s ability to buffer or counteract stressors that disasters may cause or worsen depends on its people having and using social resources and networks.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative recently awarded the Consortium for Resilient Gulf Communities (CRGC) a grant to bridge information gaps about social needs and resources that affect behaviors and decisions when disasters strike. CRGC Director Melissa Finucane with the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute shared some thoughts about their project that will help communities understand and address the health, social, and economic impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and other environmental disasters.

“The oil spill was a terrible event. However, it provides an opportunity to prepare communities for the future. We will identify factors that contribute to wellbeing, engagement, and resilient decision making and improve knowledge about impacts on mental and physical health, social support, and the Gulf’s economy.”

The CRGC will use a transdisciplinary systems approach that combines a wide spectrum of fields including public health, sociology, economics, political science, ecology, computer science, decision science, artificial intelligence, and evaluation. Qualitative and quantitative data from household surveys, economic analyses, and social and organizational network analyses will provide risk information flows, identify population and system stressors, and add insights about factors that render communities vulnerable as well as those that help their resiliency.

Finucane describes the CRGC approach as problem focused, participatory, iterative, and use-inspired so that they can help develop information and tools that decision makers can use.

“The information users and their decision processes are at our program’s center. We will look at how an event affects the governance structure and community response and what that means for better community plans. Evaluation of our efforts and changes that we see in communities will inform what and how we do our work and the end products.

Understanding local context is an important starting point for building community resilience as it shapes people’s concepts of risks and impacts. Finucane explains that the Gulf Coast has a history of industry inter-dependence in oil and gas, fisheries, and tourism and that some oil-affected areas were recovering from Hurricane Katrina during a national economic recession followed by other weather-related events.

“This research is not just about oil spills – it includes other events that send shock waves through a region. How does the broader social-ecological system affect how communities respond to disasters?”

To better understand local context and the problems that people are facing, the CRGC will conduct telephone surveys and in-person interviews in areas relatively more exposed to the oil spill. Their work will build on studies in other locations, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and extend research by consortium investigators who have conducted telephone surveys with Louisiana residents since June 2010. While their research will identify and survey groups and communities most vulnerable to the oil spill, they will also produce findings generalizable to the broader Gulf region. Their work will focus on individual households as well as key city, state, and federal leaders and policy makers who develop plans that improve community resiliency.

“Our team has experience locally, nationally, and internationally with methods for to understanding community vulnerability and building resilience. Local health workers and leaders who are trusted, respected, and have credibility will work with us to provide training and resources for regional planning and preparedness.”

Economic conditions play an important role in community resiliency when a disaster strikes. To better understand oil spill impacts on the economy, the team will develop quantitative measures for key outcomes such as revenue and employment in the fishing, tourism, and oil and gas industries. These estimates will advance analytical modeling to clarify links between the economy, social capital, and health outcomes and provide a baseline against which future oil spill impacts can be measured.

“No two communities are identical and no two were affected in exactly the same way. Our economic team will identify communities that are as similar as possible on a range of variables and then track the trajectory of economic indices in communities that were relatively less affected compared to areas relatively more affected.”

The CRGC project will produce rich and varied data. To coordinate these data for effective dissemination, the team will develop a profile-based web tool for specific users, for example intermediary groups such as extension agents and decision makers, such as county/parish emergency managers, planners, or others.

“Tailored output is where artificial intelligence and behavioral decision making help bridge research and science use. A responsive web interface can gather information about people and their decisions and identify patterns that link users and needs. This tool can integrate combinations of data categories and allow us to experimentally change things, test what works, and efficiently generate useful information.”

Finucane explains that the process of engaging community members can also generate useful information, with focus groups or meetings providing settings that encourage user-driven efforts.

“By bringing different groups together, more options may become apparent that integrate various levels of governance or decision making. We can facilitate the use of science by paying attention to their conversations and then assisting them in their efforts to have an integrated plan.”

An integrated component in the CRGC program is assessment throughout the project’s course. Finucane emphasizes that evaluating their progress, outcomes, and lessons learned is very important to their team, but it can also benefit other programs aimed at addressing disaster impacts.

“We want to know if our program changes anything, and if so, how – even if the results are not as expected. We will work with end users to test information and products, refining and improving them. We expect this approach will lead to usable science and products. But we can only know that if we evaluate along the way.”

The CRGC program, infused with community engagement, is structured so that sharing their work with others is ubiquitous. The project also includes emphasis on student and early-career scientist training in disaster research, engagement, and evaluation methods that build innovative, transdisciplinary teams and best practices in community leadership and resilience.

Lead members of the CRGC are RAND Gulf States Policy Institute, Louisiana State University, Tulane University, University of South Alabama, and Louisiana Public Health Institute. For more information about CRGC project, people, and institutions, click here.

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The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) is a 10-year independent research program established to study the effect, and the potential associated impact, of hydrocarbon releases on the environment and public health, as well as to develop improved spill mitigation, oil detection, characterization and remediation technologies. An independent and academic 20-member Research Board makes the funding and research direction decisions to ensure the intellectual quality, effectiveness and academic independence of the GoMRI research. All research data, findings and publications will be made publicly available. The program was established through a $500 million financial commitment from BP. For more information, visit http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) – All Rights Reserved. Redistribution is encouraged with acknowledgement to the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). Please credit images and/or videos as done in each article. Questions? Contact web-content editor Nilde “Maggie” Dannreuther, Northern Gulf Institute, Mississippi State University (maggied@ngi.msstate.edu).