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Being human: Understanding our anxieties, responses in the face of disasters

By: Missy Partyka / Published: Nov 08,  2018

In my previous years as a research scientist it was my obligation, if not luxury, to act as an impartial observer to the impacts of different natural/manmade disasters on organisms, ecosystems, and coastal communities. However, as an extension specialist it is my role to bridge the gap between science and public need following these same events.

To become involved in the communities I serve and act as a translator of sorts: ensuring that scientists are helping to answer the questions that audiences may have and that those audiences are able to understand the science that is being performed. In my experience, no topic puts science and the public in closer proximity than issues of human health. Few human health issues are likely to grab public attention while raising our collective anxiety like the specter of a disaster playing out before us on the evening news.

No strangers to disasters

NOAA Navigation Response Team-Stennis investigates a partially submerged vessel following Hurricane Michael. (Photo credit: NOAA Lt. j.g. Michelle Levano)
NOAA Navigation Response Team-Stennis investigates a partially submerged vessel following Hurricane Michael. (Photo credit: NOAA Lt. j.g. Michelle Levano)

Communities of the Gulf Coast are no strangers to disaster. Some might even say we court it, throwing hurricane parties, reveling in the raw energy of an impending storm. But our irreverent behavior in the anticipation of an event falls away when we see our neighbors hurting, when our families are hurting. It is during these times that we desperately seek support, empathy, and answers to questions that, quite frequently, may take years of research to resolve.

While extension specialists are not first responders, we Sea Grant specialists, like my fellow members of the Oil Spill Science Outreach Team, are frequently on the proverbial front lines of the communities we serve. Combing through available research, contacting scientists and subject matter experts, digesting information and converting it into something usable by those who need answers. 

It is my role on the team to act as the conduit for questions related specifically to the diverse human impacts following an oil spill.

Though Deepwater Horizon (DWH) looms large in our communal consciousness, less iconic spills occur more regularly (see the NOAA oil spill incidents map), with deeply personal impacts to the communities left in their wake.

For example, few may realize that hurricanes and tropical storms can contribute to oil spills by inundating storage tanks or damaging rigs and vessels. The immediate health impacts of exposure to oil and the associated chemicals (e.g. polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)) are frequently covered by the media and captivate the minds of coastal residents following a spill.

Spills have human health consequences

Flickr/The People Speak!
Flickr/The People Speak!

Other impacts to communities are sometimes overlooked. For example, studies have shown that individuals impacted by spills may experience mental health effects months or even years after a spill. Others have found psychological and social impacts felt by entire communities following spills that are not easily addressed by conventional health care approaches.

Communities may even be pulled apart as individuals struggle to find answers or find someone to blame.

In the wake of DWH, most people saw that a great deal of resources were channeled toward habitat restoration and fisheries impacts. However, it may not be readily known that research funds were also specifically directed to understanding the various human health consequences of the spill

Many of those studies have been published and are being utilized by policy makers and the responders as they prepare for future events. But as is evident from the spill incidents map, communities in the Gulf are not the only ones impacted by spills. Nor are we the only ones impacted by storms, or floods or any of the other forms of disasters that have the ability to either pull us apart or strengthen our bonds of community.

It is my job as an extension specialist to see the application of science for answering questions across a diversity of needs. It is my role as a human to see the humanity in others and to seek commonality in our shared experiences while helping to grow our communities in the face of disaster.

Workshops to address human health and spills

To address regionally specific questions and needs related to human health and spill response/preparation, The National Academy of Sciences is co-sponsoring a series of five workshops to be held in four regions of the United States over the next six months.

Examples of the interconnected impacts from oil spills that will be addressed at workshops.
Examples of the interconnected impacts from oil spills that will be addressed at workshops.

For more information on the workshops, including registration information for the upcoming workshop in Houma, Louisiana, December 4-5, please see our recent press release.

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