Community response to environmental disaster differs based on the cause of the event. In natural disasters, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, communities tend to pull together and support one another, rolling up their sleeves and volunteering to rebuild. Political differences are set aside as people band together for the good of social connectedness. There is no one to blame as it is considered an “act of God,” and the impact is direct with known and often visible results. Outreach from others is immediate, as emotional and financial support flows in from outside sources. The community rebuilds, creating a sense of closure, recovery and re-growth.
Technological disasters, also known as “manmade” disasters, include events such as radiation leaks or toxic spills. After a technological disaster, communities often become divisive. Sociologists call this the “corrosive community” tendency. Corrosive communities are characterized by anger, uncertainty, loss of institutional trust, collective stress, self-isolation and litigation. Experts and contractors with little or no connection to the community may be leading the recovery efforts, leaving people feeling helpless and wondering “what can I do?” Outside support may be slow in coming, as the general public often shies away from anything associated with contamination. The community is left waiting for an entity to take responsibility, while arguing over who should be blamed. Fears of the ongoing and uncertain consequences of the disaster lead to high levels of stress and anxiety. Litigation is seen as the only possible recourse, often creating community conflict since some may be eligible for compensation while others may not. Primary and secondary effects linger, making it difficult for the community to have closure or recover from the disaster.
The findings above are based on decades of sociological research on environmental disasters, including an in-depth study of an Alaskan community that was “ground zero” for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in 1989. I spent 10 years living in that community – Cordova, Alaska – realizing firsthand that environmental disasters have real social consequences, including self-harm, addiction and abuse.
Now my family resides in Durango, and again we are watching a technological disaster unfold. The one consolation is that based on previous research, there are now many resources available to help communities cope with the social impacts of technological disasters, hopefully preventing the “corrosive” effects from taking hold.
First, understand that the reactions you may be experiencing (and those of your friends, family and neighbors) follow similar patterns of social/psychological stress from technological disaster. The confusion and uncertainty about the extent of health-related and economic impacts from environmental contamination creates the psychological effect of “invisible trauma.” Support is often needed to help people move through these reactions and to avoid further social and personal disruption.
Second, be willing to participate in informal conversations that offer genuine, empathetic, sincere connections to other affected community members. Peer Listening Programs have been successful for community recovery, where community members help each other by listening to their stories and rebuilding social relationships. As a small step in that direction, there will be a community gathering from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundayat Rotary Park for people of all ages (including kids) to have a public forum to talk about the river and creatively express their thoughts.
Third, seek out further information about how other communities have tried to maintain resilience in the face of technological disasters. Gulf Coast residents have organized a resource center in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster (www.coastalresourcecenter.org). Similarly affected communities offer a precautionary warning that litigation often entails a prolonged and protracted process, producing secondary trauma to community members. Damage awards are contentious, and delays are inevitable, often leading to lack of closure for plaintiffs.
These suggestions are important to consider as any community responds to a technological disaster, and I hope that our public officials will consider these lessons. It must also be noted, however, that these are direct intervention strategies for human well-being and do not address the underlying roots of the environmental problems that communities (both human and non-human) are facing around the world.
In addition to addressing the immediate social and ecological needs after a technological disaster, we must also be thoughtful in considering the human relationship with the environment as a whole. This entails asking what social conditions allowed us to get here, taking responsibility for where we want to be in the future and addressing corrosion in all of its forms.
Becky Clausen is an associate professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College. She owes much gratitude to sociology professors Steve Picou, Duane Gill and Liesel Ritchie and to marine toxicologist Riki Ott for their research on environmental disasters. Much of this piece is based on their work. Reach her at Clausen_R@fortlewis.edu.