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Message from the Director 

As the semester opened in January, the pandemic hit close to home for the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center. Faculty and staff in our network at TAMU had family members living in Wuhan, the epicenter, or working as doctors fighting the emerging pandemic in China. We maintained hope for them - thankfully they are safe - as we waited for what would come next. 

 

And here we are. Social distancing, working from home, using ZOOM way too much, and still maintaining hope for friends and family that are fighting the virus itself, working on the medical frontlines, or handling economic consequences. We adjusted to ensure all of our staff, postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduate students could continue working safely from home. We are rearranging budgets to address educational needs of many students this summer. And we are increasing our mentoring activities and just touching base more with each other to stay emotionally healthy and professionally on track. Like any emergency responder will say, you have to secure your family first. Now, we can begin to consider other questions about how what we know and do that may contribute in some small way to our collective situation. 

 

With this in mind, this page has two themes - one professional and one more personal

 

The Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center has researched dozens of disasters over its 31 years. Our research usually focuses on mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery around natural and technological hazards rather than pandemics. With coronavirus, the research need from the medical and health fields is dire. Yet, as disaster scholars, we know that any disaster, pandemics included, have roots in the social and built environments that we study and consequences that will reverberate across society, usually in inequitable ways. 

 

So we asked our HRRC team to share their thoughts on what their current and past research in natural and technological disasters illuminates for the risk and consequences of the current pandemic. This work is both academic and highly practical. As society begins to consider recovery activities, applying what we already know about disaster recovery and disaster-related needs can inform evidence-based policies that more efficiently and equitable address this recovery. We as disaster scholars know that the first steps in any recovery require getting clear about impacts and connecting those with appropriate policy levers. To do that, though, we have to know what to look for and what questions to ask. This is where our research on other types of hazards may help.  

 

Below you will find various connections between our usual research and this pandemic. Check back regularly as we add more contributions from our team. Some are uplifting while others raise concerns society may reckon with soon. I discuss nonprofits and volunteers building from my work with long-term recovery groups and civilian search and rescue teams and how they rise to the challenge during crises - neighbors helping neighbors. Dr. Nathanael Rosenheim thinks about data congruence across public health and natural hazard fields and highlights his team’s work with food banks following Hurricane Harvey. Dr. Maria Watson has researched small business recovery following disasters for several years now, and she connects those impacts and recoveries to the pandemic closures. 

 

Many of our concerns grow from the ample evidence of inequity in other types of disasters. Jim Schwab - hazard planner, scholar and colleague - published a blog recently that overviews the many inequities of this pandemic, which are just like every other disaster. He calls upon work from HRRC faculty Dr. Shannon Van Zandt and HRRC Alum Dr. Marccus Hendricks to underscore the well established research showing how society structures disaster recovery in very unequal ways. Shannon discusses this more below indicating how living in a built environment with a history of segregation and discimination in economic and housing markets generates unequal impacts of a virus along racial and economic lines. Dr. Andrea Roberts draws this connection further discussing how Freedom Colonies - Black settlements began by formerly enslaved people after the Civil War - have limited health and Internet infrastructure, both of which are crucial to surviving and thriving during this crisis. Dr. Siyu Yu furthers the discussion of vulnerable populations by focusing on plan integration - or where the various plans and policies either align or create increased vulnerability to hazards. Her work highlights how socially vulnerable populations are often less “planned for” across all types of planning activities.

 

While maintaining research and teaching, personally, we are going through the same social isolation woes and joys of many others around the world. We share some of those experiences with you by answering the question “how do disaster scholars adapt to living through a crisis?” Happy and poignant, we open up our workplaces (aka homes) with you. 

 

We will continue to add to this discussion over the next few weeks, so please check back. We will also share on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Also, see the individual faculty webpages and our People page to find out how to contact each scholar to learn more. You can reach us via email and phone (the main line is forwarded to me) to learn more or share your stories. 

 

With thoughts of good health for you and your loved ones,

Michelle

Director, HRRC

What findings from your research in other types of disaster can be adapted to this pandemic?

Michelle Meyer

Helping behavior is commonly observed in disasters. Family, friends, neighbors, and strangers stop to help others (see Aldrich and Meyer 2015). Donations and volunteers pour into affected communities. This altruistic drive is strong in the pandemic too...just with a little more distance from each other! In fact my research on both civilian search and rescue teams and long-term recovery groups, shows that these organizations are adapting quickly to the social and economic needs caused by the pandemic. My research with volunteer search and rescue groups, for example, highlights the innovative use of new technology and smartphone apps to facilitate volunteering. Rescue groups such as Cajun Navy Relief, United Cajun Navy, Cajun Navy Foundation, and Crowdsource Rescue are adapting their tasks but using the same online tools to crowdsource needs from mask making and mask delivery, to fundraisers, and to delivering food to populations in high risk health groups. They are using Zello (a walkie talkie app), Slack (a project management app), along with Facebook and Twitter as well as creating their own apps and platforms. Long-term recovery groups, which addressed unmet needs post-disaster, can adapt the same methods of case management and philanthropic efforts to pandemic needs. No houses to reconstruct, but lots of unmet financial, social, spiritual, and emotional needs to address. As Mr. Rogers said, when crises occur, look for the helpers. There will be many of them adapting their tasks and technologies to quickly address community needs.

Nathanael Rosenheim

I can think of two ways the current pandemic relates to my areas of research, which include finding novel uses of publicly available socio-economic data and food access. My research on generating housing unit level inventories, which is a novel way to use US Census Data, was actually inspired by research from public health, that uses synthetic populations to support infectious disease models. This line of research recognizes that to model complex responses to a disruptive event requires detailed data about people. The current pandemic reminds me of the connections between public health and natural disasters. The Models for Infectious Disease Agent Study is a good example. For my second area of research, food access, the pandemic is very salient. I have been researching how food banks and food retailers were impacted by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. My team and I have been working on a report that summarizes the impacts from a survey of over 400 food retailers and 40 food aid agencies. The current crisis has increased the attention on this topic and increases our team’s motivation to publish our research. Our preliminary findings suggest that after a crisis (our survey focused on Hurricane Harvey) the local food bank was able to quickly increase its capacity and local food retailers proved very resilient despite damage and complications with the supply chain.

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Andrea Roberts

The 550+ Texas freedom colonies, Black communities founded 1865-1930, still have residents and active stakeholders. The advocacy groups and community members we partner with may only live in settlements part-time yet are responsible for land stewardship and the care of elderly residents.  During interviews and focus groups, gen exers and baby boomers associated with these settlements pointed to internet connectivity and health care quality as reasons they don’t live full-time in freedom colonies (Roberts & Kelly 2019). Moreover, just as the Texas Freedom Colonies Atlas showed a 47% spatial match between counties impacted by Harvey and high concentrations of freedom colonies, a similar relationship exists between Texas counties with poor internet connectivity and freedom colony concentration (connectednation.org).   

The pandemic amplifies the need to concurrently address health care access and internet connectivity in Texas, particularly within rural areas. These are planning equity issues. The inability to telecommute and a lack of access to hospitals with intensive care units challenge freedom colony descendants’ efforts to revitalize economically depressed settlements and mean the difference between life and death during a pandemic. Our research brings attention to the need to expand broadband access and expose freedom colonies’ infrastructure equity issues. 

Maria Watson

Looking at business interruption and recovery from disaster events, it can be tempting to think it is the physical impacts--damage to storefronts, flooded roads around the business, and downed power lines--that keep a business from reopening its doors. Instead, this pandemic highlights just how vulnerable businesses are to customer and labor disruptions, which is also a main concern in other types of disasters. My recent research findings in Lumberton, NC after Hurricane Matthew indicated that even a 10% loss of customers resulted in the business dropping to below 50-50 odds of full recovery more than a year after the event. This same dataset also showed that customer retention was significantly related to whether a business was able to retain its pre-disaster level of employees, indicating a potentially vicious economic cycle.

Similarly, when it comes to business disaster assistance such as SBA loans, there is often conflict between the amount of money available, the speed in which money can be delivered, and the ease in which businesses can navigate the process. In the case of Galveston, Texas after Hurricane Ike, matched analysis indicated that loans helped businesses survive, but the loans were likely helping businesses that were more resilient to begin with. With the range of new programs available, it will be interesting to see if similar themes emerge in the response to this pandemic. 

 

Siyu Yu

Much of my research focuses on issues of growing vulnerability as a result of development in flood-prone areas and uncoordinated hazard mitigation planning. The resilience of the built and natural environments is strongly influenced by guidance from a community’s network of plan documents, and how they affect community vulnerability. Findings have shown high variability in policy support for risk reduction, including vulnerable neighborhoods that receive comparatively little policy attention (Berke et al., 2019). Policies at different administrative scales may also lack consistency in some places, and some even increase risk of flood loss in neighborhoods with high social vulnerability. 

The spreading pandemic complicates the situation, and highly socially vulnerable populations may face simultaneous threats from both flooding and COVID-19. Understanding the spatial and social vulnerability patterns of the pandemic has become a critical task for reducing the mortality rate. My research helps identify highly socially vulnerable neighborhoods within a community, as well as places where planning policies are focused and helpful and where they are lacking or conflicting. This can help provide data for emergency support and policy decision-making, with a focus on groups and places which lack capacity for responding to pandemic, a flood, or a combined event (e.g. low-income, lack of healthcare access). This work points to the importance of incorporating mitigation planning (including pandemic planning) into traditional comprehensive and development planning that communities undertake.

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Shannon Van Zandt 

People and households are not randomly distributed across cities and metropolitan areas. Instead, they are concentrated in pockets of privilege and pockets of disadvantage, largely based on whether they are rich or poor; black, white, or brown. To explore the racial segregation of the nation’s urban areas, spend some time at the University of Virginia’s Cooper Center’s racial dot density map.  These development patterns, which are present in nearly every city across the nation, mean that not only do low-income residents suffer from the disadvantage of being poor, but they also suffer from the disadvantage of living in a poor neighborhood—low-performing schools, higher crime, less access to goods and services, and more. These individual- and neighborhood-level disadvantages often lead to differences in how people are affected by, and respond to, disasters.  In the disaster literature, this is called social vulnerability.

How does social vulnerability matter during the current pandemic? Numbers are starting to emerge that indicate that people of color are being harder hit by the coronavirus—disproportionate numbers of cases, as well as of deaths.  An April 7, 2020 article in the Chicago Tribune revealed that in Chicago, Black residents are dying at nearly six times the rate of white residents. While the reasons for this have a lot to do with greater numbers of Black residents working in front-line, “essential” service sector jobs, at least part of the blame will trace back to the conditions of the neighborhoods that people of color mostly live in, including overcrowding, poor housing quality, lack of access to open areas and greenspace, and poorer quality roads, sidewalks, and storm water management systems.  These factors, evidence for all of which can be found in urban planning and public health literature, mean that it’s harder for people of color to socially distance themselves from one another, and it’s easier for the virus to spread in the places that they live.

The greater incidence of cases and deaths among people of color is similar to what we see during and after a natural disaster—socially vulnerable populations experience greater levels of damage from natural disasters.  And so we can expect that, like we see after a natural disaster, it will take these populations longer to recover, with much greater difficulty, and that the disadvantages that they had prior to the epidemic will be even worse afterwards.

 Built Environment

 

J. Carlee Purdum 

As a research assistant professor at the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center, my research focuses on how emergencies affect incarcerated populations and correctional institutions. Incarcerated populations are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of the coronavirus. Prisons, jails, and other correctional facilities are congregate environments, meaning hundreds to even several thousand persons may live and interact with one another within the environment, facilitating the spread of the virus. Incarcerated populations also reflect disproportionate rates of health disparities making them even more vulnerable to COVID19. Other factors compound this vulnerability, including stigma and the reliance on incarcerated workers for emergency labor.  The perception that incarcerated populations are inherently violent has led to state governments across the U.S., including Texas, going against CDC guidements by refusing to issue incarcerated populations resources like hand sanitizer due to its being a flammable substance. Additionally, state agencies look to incarcerated populations to act as a source of cheap labor in emergencies and disasters. This practice has become visible in response to the coronavirus as incarcerated populations work to clean hospital laundry and materials, dig graves for the deceased, and manufacture needed PPE and disinfectants, including materials they are denied.

 

How does a disaster scholar adapt to living through a Crisis?

Michelle Meyer

Pets and fun use of ZOOM. Without two large furry housemates, I would be getting much weirder than I already am. My dogs Melleaux (pronounced Mell-o) and Artmesia keep me active and moving throughout the day. They listen well, though provide minimal conversation back. I do wish these co-workers could read and write. Maybe respond to emails...that would be super useful right now. To their credit, they consistently volunteer to take over for me in ZOOM meetings or teaching classes. I have let them once or twice. Their CVs are growing though! They also get special virtual time with their doggie friends during human happy hour or crafting ZOOM sessions.

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- Melleaux in the front,  Artmesia in the back

Deidra Davis

This is where the “rubber meets the road”!  Disaster scholars study the behaviors of communities during a disaster. This includes their access to resources, communication from units providing resources, resilience (bounce back) and/or their adaptability, and etc.  to the new normal. Well, here we are- being the case study (subject) and PI of the research. The researcher becomes the subject. It would benefit the scholar to review their previous research, the research of others and view it all, hopefully, with a new lens. Are there resources available to the scholar, professionally and personally, to aid their progress during a disaster as it pertains to their research? Assistance from the governing body for the scholar, in our case- the university, plays a significant part in the process of adapting to this “new normal” .

Nathanael Rosenheim

I have never lived through a natural disaster, so this would count as my first disaster to live through. It feels very different from the flooded neighborhoods and businesses I have surveyed. The electricity has stayed on, no boil water orders, the roads are clear… I feel very fortunate that critical infrastructure has remained functional.  

Maria Watson

In normal times, to reduce stress I would take breaks at our local parks or drive to a new one, but in the current pandemic, I have learned to enjoy (literally) what’s in my own backyard. Since I am home, I have been able to enjoy watching the cedar waxwing migrations, a Carolina wren couple raise their first brood of the year, and the resident box turtle, Spike (pictured), visit every morning.  I can’t escape work completely, though, and find myself taking driving “breaks” to window survey the operating statuses of the local businesses around town.

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- Turtle in the backyard, Photo taken by Maia Watson

 

Resources 

World Health Organization Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 
Texas Department of State Health Services 
Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases 
How to be Safe & Resilient 
TAMU Coronavirus Updates