Cover: Building Community Resilience to Large Oil Spills

Building Community Resilience to Large Oil Spills

Findings and Recommendations from a Synthesis of Research on the Mental Health, Economic, and Community Distress Associated with the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Published Jul 6, 2020

by Melissa L. Finucane, Aaron Clark-Ginsberg, Andrew M. Parker, Alejandro Uriel Becerra-Ornelas, Noreen Clancy, Rajeev Ramchand, Tim Slack, Vanessa Parks, Lynsay Ayer, Amanda F. Edelman, et al.


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Research Question

  1. What could communities, government officials, nongovernment organizations, businesses, and scientists do to build community resilience to large oil spills?

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill was the largest in U.S. history, releasing an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The scale of the disaster motivated diverse stakeholders to examine the human dimensions of the spill and how communities' resilience to similar threats could be improved. This examination is needed because, as long as humans depend on extracting oil and gas for energy, coastal regions are at risk for spills. In this report, the authors explore how communities, government officials, nongovernmental organizations, businesses, and scientists can build community resilience to large oil spills. Researchers found mixed evidence of distress associated with the DWH disaster and a variety of factors that affected the nature and severity of people's experiences.

Key Findings

Mixed findings on mental health distress; income loss and prior trauma drove negative effects

  • There was mixed evidence that the DWH oil spill caused short- and long-term mental health distress; life disruption (particularly income loss), prior trauma, and various sociodemographic characteristics drove negative mental health symptoms.
  • Higher levels of social capital had a protective effect against spill-related stress, except for groups with high attachments to damaged resources (e.g., fishing households).
  • Some social groups reported experiencing more distress than others, partly because of differing levels and types of prior trauma, disruption from the oil spill, or available support.

Industry suffered short-term economic loss, while households reported suffering economically in the long term

  • Economic losses from the DWH oil spill were short-term for the commercial fishing, oil and gas, and tourism industries. However, years after the oil spill, high proportions of households reported very negative effects on their financial situations.
  • Economic effects were highly heterogenous; the most-severe economic effects were reported by poorer households.

Communities were stressed by the spill and by litigation afterwards

  • Conditions following the DWH oil spill reflected reduced trust in authorities, weakened social networks, increased perceptions of inequitable distribution of post-spill resources, and increased domestic violence.
  • Uncertainty over the extent of oil spill impacts, competing narratives of responsibility and blame, protracted litigation and compensation processes, and perceptions of injustice related to these factors were chronic stressors.
  • Different groups demonstrated different experiences of loss and recovery. Fishing households in particular reported high levels of DWH-related disruption of social routines.


  • Focus on the needs of people and their communities.
  • Address the complexity of the resource-dependent social systems in which disasters are managed.
  • Enhance partnerships, leveraging diverse sets of skills and strengths.
  • Connect the past, present, and future contexts to support disaster recovery efforts.
  • Deepen the evidence base for building community resilience.

Research conducted by

Funding for this research was provided by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative and gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations. The research was conducted in the Community Health and Environmental Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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