Texas A&M researchers study how disasters affect communities and what happens after the storm

Community resilience: What happens after the storm

Texas A&M researcher studies how disasters affect communities and how quickly they can recover
September 6, 2016

Whether it’s a major flood like Louisiana experienced a few weeks ago, or a hurricane like the ones that have been forming recently in the Atlantic, community resilience is key for recovery after a disaster.

Jennifer A. Horney, PhD, MPH, CPH, associate professor at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, has long been interested in resilience of Texas’ coastal areas. She has been developing a way to track communities’ vulnerability and ability to recover from disasters. Now, with a grant from Texas Sea Grant and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Horney and her team are studying how local residents perceive the resilience of their communities in four counties along the Texas coast.

“We know surprisingly little about how residents’ perceptions align with objective measures of resilience and whether these perceptions affect community engagement and support for resilience building activities and policies,” Horney said. She’s partnered with Kirby Goidel, PhD, a professor in the Department of Communication and the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University, to find out.

The survey, which the team will begin using this fall, focuses on residents of Brazoria, Nueces, Galveston and Cameron counties, and measures their perceived resilience and confidence in local institutions. Horney can then measure whether this perception aligns with reality by comparing survey results with her previous research on preparedness plans and other vulnerability measures. “Individuals who perceive that their local communities are already resilient, for example, may see little need for additional action,” Horney said. “However, if our data shows that the community members don’t understand their true level of resilience, they can’t make good decisions about implementing resilience-building measures.”

Once the study is complete, Horney and her team plan to create a set of recommendations to more effectively communicate with and engage local residents in resilience building. This may go beyond simply telling them how to prepare for a hurricane or what to do in a flood. “We often assume that building engagement and support is best done through increased awareness of environmental risks and vulnerabilities,” Horney said. “However, scholars have increasingly noted the limitations of ‘information deficit’ models of communication. By providing deeper insight into public understanding of local community resilience and individual motivation to learn, this study should show policymakers and activists how to persuade and mobilize local residents.”

Another aspect of resilience and recovery is the care of those professionals who help clean up after the disaster. “There is a growing concern that the number of board-certified specialists in environmental and occupational health may not be sufficient to deal with environmental emergencies,” Horney said. “We see the need for greater education of primary care providers in this area because it seems general practitioners with little training are seeing up to 75 percent of those with environmental or occupational injuries.”

To that end, Horney and her team are developing continuing education modules, Environmental Health and Disaster Education for Practitioners. They will start with two scenarios: a hurricane and a gas/oil explosion.

“We hope that by increasing capacity to care for first responders to a disaster, we will improve the ability of the entire community to recover,” Horney said. “We may not be able to predict and prepare for every possible disaster, but by improving community resilience we can make great progress.”

— Christina Sumners

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