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July 2020

RAND Gulf States Policy Institute

From the Director

Melissa Finucane en route to visit communities around Galliano, LA<br>in May 2017 for this project, photo by RAND staff

Melissa Finucane en route to visit communities around Galliano, LA
in May 2017 for this project, photo by RAND Corporation staff

It’s been 10 years since the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill, and, even while the nation takes on new crises, our region still bears the consequences. The environment and wildlife remain affected, of course, but as the final report from the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute-led Consortium for Resilient Gulf Communities (CRGC) shows, so have the people.

For this issue of the newsletter, I talked with the consortium’s director and my RAND colleague, Melissa Finucane. She and her team of researchers from RAND, Tulane University, Louisiana State University, Louisiana Public Health Institute, and the University of South Alabama have been working with people across all five Gulf states since 2015 to learn firsthand about the disaster’s social, economic, and public health impacts. As their final study shows, environmental changes have affected fishing, tourism, and other industries on which people directly depend for work. Families and communities were hurt as well; the study also demonstrates how depression, anxiety, and alcohol misuse were part of the oil spill’s aftermath, especially in households with substantial income loss or ones that experienced earlier trauma.

The study does not end by simply describing the present state, however. My RAND colleagues have a long history in working toward improving community resilience, and this report offers findings of what we can all do better going forward—that is, how we can make changes now to address remaining challenges and better prepare for future disasters.

Gary Cecchine

Researcher Spotlight

Q&A with Melissa Finucane

This quarter, I am happy to share my discussion with Melissa Finucane, a senior social and behavioral scientist at RAND who focuses on the many dimensions of environmental and health risks.

Melissa Finucane

Here, she talks about her latest study on how people and communities were affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, what can be done to help those still experiencing the impacts, and what we can do to prepare for possible future disasters. Funding for this research was provided by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative and gifts from RAND supporters.

1. What communities in the U.S. Gulf region did you look at and how many people participated in the study?

Because there were two stages of the study, we were able to work with a lot of people across the U.S. Gulf states. In the first part, called the Survey of Trauma, Resilience, and Opportunity in Neighborhoods in the Gulf (STRONG), we interviewed about 2,500 people who live in the 56 counties and parishes in close proximity to the Gulf of Mexico across all five Gulf states. We interviewed these people by phone and mail. We asked them a wide range of questions aimed at assessing the mental health, social, and economic distress associated with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

In the second part of the study, we worked directly in Port Sulphur and Galliano, two communities in Louisiana, as well as Bayou la Batre in Alabama. We trained and funded seven community health workers across these three communities. These workers supported resilience-building activities prioritized by the community members. We also conducted in-depth interviews about disaster preparation and resilience in the three communities.

2. What did the consortium do to help communities in the region? Why did you approach it this way, and what were the results, both for now and for the future?

We conducted a wide range of research and outreach activities over the past five years. Together, these activities aimed at assessing and addressing the impacts of the DWH oil spill. With community support, we dove deep into understanding the ways in which the spill affected individuals, community groups, health clinics, and businesses. By systematically collecting both qualitative and quantitative data and using a variety of analytic designs, we could provide robust information to policymakers about what happened at the local and regional levels and, to some extent, help them understand why things happened.

We were very committed to broadly sharing what we learned, so we put a lot of effort into developing and disseminating fact sheets for local citizens, attending community meetings, and building a website where people can go to easily get more information. Most recently, we summarized the findings from our studies and the work of other groups to provide recommendations about what communities, government officials, nongovernment organizations, businesses, and scientists can do to build community resilience to large oil spills.

3. How is this project unique among studies of the Deepwater disaster?

Overall, I’d say CRGC’s activities were different from those of a typical research project in that we constantly evolved our thinking, research questions, and methods as we learned more about the experiences in the Gulf since the oil spill. I’d like to say that we helped shine a light on the range of challenges faced by Gulf Coast communities and on the ways in which close-knit communities might work well together. We certainly learned that there are a lot of nuances to what factors help communities to adapt and recover to disasters and that there is much more still to understand.

4. Among the people who live in the region, who was affected most by the spill?

Poorer households reported the most-severe economic impacts. The people who suffered the most mental health distress, such as depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress tended to be those who experienced more life disruption, such as income loss or loss of social routines; had experienced prior trauma; or whose livelihoods were attached to damaged industries, such as fishing and tourism. Overall, we learned that mental health problems, financial challenges, and social distress were experienced most deeply by Gulf Coast communities facing a sudden, long-term threat to their way of life (e.g., fishers). In short, people experiencing stress from more sources are more vulnerable to negative outcomes and need more support to recover.

5. Were there any surprising findings?

There were several surprises. One was a larger social support network that was associated with a higher likelihood of screening positive for depression among families who relied on the fishing industry. This is surprising because, for most people, social support provides access to emotional and financial resources. We speculate that, because fisheries were so broadly affected, fishing households found that their usual social support networks were simply unavailable wherever they turned. The whole system, in other words, was negatively affected for these households.

6. What are a few things local and state governments can do now to prevent these kinds of effects should this kind of disaster happen again?

Local and state governments should provide sustained resources to local programs to address social disparities and identify and support populations likely to be vulnerable in a future disaster. This includes making sure that people who experience long-term job loss have access to alternative work or income. Policymakers should also think holistically about long-term needs. They can do this by working with communities to help them identify relevant local priorities and strategies for achieving them. Finally, they can adopt a long-term perspective that connects the past, present, and future. For instance, before the next disaster strikes, they might consider where to place hazardous-waste disposal sites to distribute risk across all communities more equitably if a disaster strikes.

7. COVID-19 is presenting a lot of serious challenges to communities and individuals. What takeaways from this work might local and state leaders consider as they try to help people through this tough time?

Unfortunately, communities who suffered most after the DWH spill are high on the list of places likely to be hardest hit by a COVID-19 recession. Their dependence on industry groups such as mining and gas, transportation, employment services, travel, leisure, and hospitality, means they are more vulnerable to virus-related disruptions, shutdowns, and layoffs. Additionally, stay-at-home policies are creating social isolation and reducing access to social services and mental health care that is critically needed at this difficult time. The abrupt and widespread loss of an economic and social support system is especially debilitating for those who have lost their normal coping mechanisms.

I think that many of the lessons learned from the consortium’s work in the past five years can be applied now to mitigate some of the suffering: Identify and support vulnerable groups, think holistically and long term, and provide sustained resources to address disparities. The main difference with the current COVID-19 situation, however, is the global scale of the disaster, which makes recovery much more difficult and prolonged. Leveraging the strengths and talents of local Gulf communities will be essential for surviving in the short term and, ultimately, thriving in the long term.

The RAND Gulf States Policy Institute provides objective analysis to federal, state, and local leaders in support of evidence-based policymaking and the well-being of individuals throughout the U.S. Gulf States region. We invite your suggestions for researchers, projects, centers, and funding or collaboration opportunities to highlight in future issues. Write to director Gary Cecchine at Gary_Cecchine@rand.org.

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