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Sociologist Testifies at House Hearing on Disasters

Subcommittee on Basic Research examines the role of social science in disaster preparedness and response

by Lee Herring, Public Affairs Office

The House Committee on Science’s Basic Research Subcommittee held a hearing on November 10 on “The Role of Social Science Research in Disaster Preparedness and Response.” The purpose of the Capitol Hill hearing, which included witness Shirley Laska, Professor of Environmental Sociology and Director of the Center for Hazards Assessment, Response and Technology (CHART) at the University of New Orleans, was to help policymakers better understand how the social sciences can inform planning for, response to, and recovery from natural hazards and disasters. Laska was one of four social scientists to testify at the hearing.

Veteran attendees of House committee hearings were struck by the fact that more than half of the subcommittee’s Members participated in the hearing and most remained to listen to the witnesses and other Members’ questions. Seven Members delivered their own statements and asked questions of the witnesses. The hearing, facilitated by COSSA (the Consortium of Social Science Associations), was chaired by the subcommittee chair Robert Inglis (R-SC).

In her testimony, Laska explained that her “responsibilities at the University of New Orleans encompass directing an applied social science research center focused on assisting coastal Louisiana communities in developing resiliency to natural disasters.” For the last 20 years she has conducted research on natural disasters and the relationship between society and the environment.

CHART was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and, said Laska, “Due to the degree of virulent mold covering the offices and contents, it has been sealed from access since the storm. The faculty associates and graduate students are scattered around the United States and of those students who have been able to return to the area, almost all have been hired by FEMA because of the applied disaster research experiences that they have acquired at CHART.”

Specific Questions

Laska was asked by the subcommittee to respond to specific questions in her testimony: What makes people and places vulnerable to natural hazards and disasters? How does the natural and built environment impact the perception of risk and subsequent behavior? How is social science research on disaster preparedness and response being translated into practice? What are the barriers to implementation of research findings and how can they be overcome?

CHART was developed specifically to apply social science research to natural hazard threats, according to Laska, and to do so in the absence of an extant model. “CHART is the application of sociological research in partnership with communities, organizations and government agencies,” said Laska. She then described for the subcommittee three CHART projects in each of the three southeast Louisiana congressional districts. All of the CHART projects have both basic and applied research components, and Laska’s three Louisiana examples “show how social scientists can partner with communities to understand risk, increase safety, and facilitate recovery from the catastrophic events of this fall.”

CHARTing a Course for Lessons Learned

She described three projects on which CHART is working in Louisiana to understand risk, increase safety, and facilitate recovery from this fall’s catastrophic events. The first involves working with FEMA’s program of “Repetitive Flood Loss” to provide data and assist local parishes in reducing flood risk to their homes and areas. Social science research, Laska stated, demonstrates that agency assistance in disasters should be locally situated, take place over a significant period of time, and develop ongoing working relationships with community officials. The project has also discovered that repeatedly flooded structures are found in clusters and thus, the response must be spread across local areas, not by individual home. This research is part of the response to support the long-term recovery of the New Orleans area.

The second project, “Participatory Action Research,” is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. This project tests a method of enhancing marginalized communities’ capacity to handle natural hazards. It involves collaboration among academics, practitioners, and residents to support improving the capacity and resiliency of at-risk communities. Working with the Native American community of Grand Bayou, Louisiana, CHART has applied sociological research to allow the marginalized community to negotiate with FEMA and other government agencies in order to take responsibility for its response to Katrina. This participatory approach has been proven to build community resiliency, Laska explained.

The third project involves the use of a traditional social science methodology—the survey and the data it generates—to plan for an evacuation. Partnering with parish emergency managers, Laska related how Susan Howell, director of the University New Orleans Survey Research Center, conducted surveys that allowed emergency managers to understand how residents evaluated risk, what plans residents make or did not make, and what aspects of the residents’ thinking ran contrary to what the scientists knew about safety and evacuation experiences. For example, most of the population believes they will remain safe by staying in their homes during a category three hurricane.

Press Coverage

National Public Radio (NPR) aired a Morning Edition story (on the same day as the social science hearing) about restoring the Gulf Coast geology and wetlands after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In the NPR story, Louisiana State University coastal scientist Robert Twilly stated: There will be winners and losers in any plan [to restore the coastal area], “but the social sciences have to be at the forefront here to establish exactly what are the consequences in every restoration decision. And we have to have an honest dialog about that.” CHART is the social science partner to which Twilly refers in this interview, and, according to Laska, there are about four social impact assessments ongoing for restoration projects along the coast.

In addition to Laska, the other expert witnesses who testified at the Subcom- mittee’s hearing included:

  • Susan Cutter, Professor of Geography at the University of South Carolina, and the Director of the Hazard Research Laboratory
  • Roxane Silver, Professor in the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior in the Department of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine
  • H. Dan O’Hair, Professor and the Chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Oklahoma.  He is also the current Vice President of the National Communications Association

The hearing prompted Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), who serves on the Committee on Science, to send a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, urging a much-needed emphasis on social science research in the government’s planning for a possible flu pandemic.

View more information on ASA’s website at www.asanet.org/page.ww?section= Advocacy&name=Science+Committee+Hearing+on+Social+Science. A webcast and Laska’s testimony can be accessed at www.house.gov/science/hearings/research05/nov%2010/index.htm.