November 19, 2018

A helping hand can heal in the wake of California wildfires

Seungyoon Lee Seungyoon Lee. (Purdue University photo)
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Their homes are reduced to ash and charred remains. They have the clothes on their back, and not much else.

Northern California’s raging wildfire has displaced 52,000 people and has destroyed 9,800 homes, according to the Associated Press. Who will help the victims as they pick up the pieces of their shattered lives? Research suggests community ties can be effective beyond the support from government or nonprofit agencies.

“Our previous studies have shown that faith-based and community organizations played a pivotal role in coordinating relief efforts,” said Seungyoon Lee, an associate professor in Purdue University’s Brian Lamb School of Communication. “They were a central point of contact in terms of sharing information about financial assistance and recovery steps, and they became a bridge between community residents and the bigger nonprofit and state and federal agencies. They also organized donated items and volunteers.”

Lee is part of an interdisciplinary research team examining the resilience of communities destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. A four-year study is using social media data, game-theory algorithms and advanced simulations to determine why some communities recovered more successfully than others.

“Local organizations, given their local knowledge and familiarity, have offered both physical and mental support to residents affected by disasters,” she said. “Residents mentioned appreciation of face-to-face support when they were frustrated with the communication and coordination failures in some of the non-profit and governmental organizations. We also observed grassroots efforts, where a few residents partnered together and initiated the support of local churches and schools and then got their words out to attract a large number of volunteers and donations from outside.”

Researchers estimate communities can lose as much as 20 percent of their pre-disaster population following a natural disaster. Cities and towns in California could experience a population drop, she said.

“In previous disasters, return rates have varied largely across neighborhoods, depending on neighborhood characteristics and housing types, demographics and socioeconomic status, and other factors,” she said. “Vulnerable populations, such as low-income and minority residents, have difficulty mobilizing resources and often experience a ‘pile-up’ of adversities that deter them from rebuilding and recovering.”

Writer: Joseph Paul, 765-494-9541,   

Source: Seungyoon Lee,

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