What a world in crisis can learn from disaster-struck communities

How will COVID-19 affect the already vulnerable coastal communities preparing for the 2020 hurricane season? Environmental anthropologist Caela O’Connell unwraps this question in her new research project.

A scenic photo of a coastal community.

Coastal communities in North Carolina have been hit by several major hurricanes and tropical storms within the past decade, including recent deadly storms like Hurricanes Florence and Michael. Already burdened by ongoing disaster recovery, these communities are now facing a global pandemic.

Caela O’Connell, an environmental anthropologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, specializes in disaster recovery and food systems sustainability. She anticipates that the already unique circumstances of the novel coronavirus will especially affect vulnerable communities recovering and rebuilding from different natural hazards.

“Those communities are already economically more vulnerable,” O’Connell said. “They are still in the process of rebuilding their schools, homes, and lives. Coronavirus is not only dangerous in terms of people’s health, but it’s also limiting peoples’ abilities to go out and connect. They can’t gather, businesses have closed, and people have lost their jobs.”

For such communities, O’Connell recommends some best practices they can follow before hurricane season begins. She said that people should reach out to their local emergency managers to learn the 2020 hurricane season disaster evacuation recommendations and response plans, because those may look different this year.

“Some towns in North Carolina are changing the locations or types of shelters they have, and others are deciding that it’s not safe to have a shelter at all,” O’Connell said. “That information is critical for families to know long before they are considering whether or not to evacuate.”

Given their past experiences, these communities may be better prepared or more resilient against the pandemic as they are able to quickly identify sources of support and weakness. Learning from survivors’ experiences may offer lessons about resilience for the wider world under the current crisis. This is the focus on a new project led by O’Connell and her research collaborator, Katherine Browne, an anthropologist at Colorado State University.

The project is based on previous research she and Browne conducted following the category 4 Hurricane Harvey in August 2017. Harvey caused catastrophic flooding, damage, and multiple deaths across the coast of Texas and Louisiana. In its aftermath, O’Connell and Brown worked with 30 affected households across the Gulf Coast to survey their experiences over several years. While these communities have come a long way, O’Connell said recovery is not complete.

As the COVID-19 epidemic grew into a global pandemic, O’Connell wanted to know the cumulative effects of successive crises in a short amount of time and to what degree such experiences inform how vulnerable communities respond to future crises. Those questions formed the foundation for a 10-person working group led by O’Connell and Brown and made up of researchers and disaster professionals from multiple universities, FEMA, and other disaster organizations.

“I began to wonder how people who have experienced other crises might be managing this pandemic differently than people for whom it’s the first time their lives have really been disrupted,” O’Connell said.

The independent research sites of the project’s group members cover eight different locations previously impacted by disasters including North Carolina, Texas, Florida, Missouri, California, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Ecuador, Puerto Rico and Nepal. The team will conduct a combination of qualitative interviews and quantitative surveys, which O’Connell said will give them a better sense of what is happening across different sites.

“When a hurricane makes landfall, they are terrible within those places, but you don’t often have a hurricane that hits many different communities with different cultural, economic, or environmental contexts in the same way you do with the COVID-19 pandemic,” O’Connell said.

The impacts that previous disasters and the pandemic have on places surveyed by the group range from food insecurity to economic instability. O’Connell plans to make the project’s research design and protocol open access so that future researchers can utilize them. It’s the type of collaborative science that O’Connell has wanted to do for a long time.

“It’s really useful to be able to scale up and look across these communities in a comparative nature,” O’Connell said. “That’s an important part of the anthropological method.”

O’Connell and Browne plan to check in with the same 30 households that participated in their study of Hurricane Harvey recovery

“People who survive disasters are often extra generous with their time knowing they are contributing to research that can help lessen the impact of disasters on people down the road,” she said. “We are hoping to document some glimmers of hope, in that those communities have very much strengthened their ties to one another.”