Prof: Social, community support of great value 6 months after Gulf of Mexico oil spill

October 14, 2010

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - How the local Gulf of Mexico community recovers from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill will depend on strong social and community support systems, says a Purdue University professor who studies disaster recovery.

"We are at that critical time, six months later, when the story has dropped from the media and fewer people and organizations are traveling to the site to help," says Daniel P. Aldrich, an assistant professor of political science. "This is a time where people really need strong community support and social networks to help them recover.

"In addition to financial struggles, such as losing jobs or opportunities to fish in the area, many feel devastated that they are unable to provide for their families. Feelings of isolation and fragmentation from a community can be more devastating than losing a job and can impede recovery efforts."

Aldrich, who was a professor at Tulane University when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, is working with colleagues at Louisiana State University to study disaster recovery after the hurricane, as well as after the April 20 oil spill. Aldrich and his colleagues are observing high rates of depression, domestic violence and divorce as they interview area residents since the Gulf spill.

Aldrich says the first step in helping communities with this aspect of recovery is to ask local people what they need. Sometimes they need meeting space for a religious group or help with communication systems to reach people.

"Money itself helps, but not for the long-term and that is why disaster recovery plans and efforts need to incorporate the social aspect of rebuilding a community," he says.

It also helps if the responders and disaster recovery leaders understand the local community's culture. For example, is the community based on a strong public school system or key religious organizations? Other important factors include area demographic information such as education, languages spoken and technological literacy. These characteristics can help provide a foundation for connecting or rebuilding the social support systems, he says.

"This is a disaster on top of a disaster, and one lesson learned from Hurricane Katrina is that recovery is a slow process," Aldrich says. "Since the first disaster, we have seen a lot of fragmentation in the public education system and mistrust of local government and law enforcement. There were already challenges before the oil spill occurred, and these obstacles are not making recovery easier, especially when it comes to relying on strong local ties and connections that could help integrate people back to normal activities again."

Aldrich also has studied recovery efforts in Tokyo after the 1923 earthquake and in Kobe, Japan, after the 1995 earthquake, as well as the southeast India coast that was hit by a tsunami in 2004. He also has looked at how community groups in New Orleans fought temporary emergency housing supported by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Aldrich is the author of the book "Site Fights: Divisive Facilities and Civil Society in the Japan and the West."

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723,

Source: Daniel P. Aldrich, 765-494-4190,