Dr. Ashley Ross-Wootton, an associate professor, author and proud Aggie, posed this question to our Natural Hazards Resilience class in February. Dr. Ross began by laying out the consequences of the 2010 Deep Horizon explosion and oil spill off the Louisiana coast: the event directly spurring her research to answer the very question she posed to us. And, with good reason.
On April 20, 2010, BP’s Macondo prospect exploded. Very soon after, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig caught fire and began gushing oil. The rig sunk while continuing to spew crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico before finally being capped on July 15. So, how did that end? Not well. About 200 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf, leaving 11 people dead and devastating family livelihoods built on fishing and shrimping. The spill had and will have catastrophic and irreparable impacts on the health of human, animal and plant life for generations.
As Dr. Ross watched the Deepwater Horizon spill unfolding, the inextricable connections between public and private disaster-related service provisions stood out starkly to her. When events such as Deepwater Horizon or Hurricane Harvey happen, their impact is polarizing and often exacerbates a community’s vulnerabilities, wicked problems and deficiencies.
Siloed interventions will not cut it.
Hazards are complex problems, at times with overlapping events. Therefore, these problems need strategic capacity-building through an intersectional lens aimed at equity-driven outcomes. There are fiscal and human capital restraints, institutional bounds, infrastructure, and social vulnerabilities to work out. Such that an expansive set of instruments and expertise collaboration are necessary to bolster inclusive community resilience.
You need a coalition.
One grounded in good (Resilient) hazard governance as established by Dr. Ross (See Figure 1 and Figure 2). The defining characteristic of good hazard governance is community cooperation and citizen power. The coalition, or collective, should include resident experts, professors, therapists, clergy, engineers, teachers, non-profits, for-profits, and well, I think you get the picture.
The collective can then identify and agree on hazard management objectives together. Once the collective vision is set, the community can then strategize how to proceed. During this process, the coalition must be built with a profoundly critical eye. If neighborhoods are to become truly resilient, then the structures and powers which barred their progress must be interrupted. In other words, if a part of the community remains oppressed (i.e., by selective capacity building and inclusion, gatekeeping, etc.), that inequity thwarts any attempts toward community resiliency.
Without disrupting unjust systems, community inaction corroborates that the system isn’t built for everyone— acceptance that “just not everyone is meant to weather the storm.” A hazard management collective or any governing body should consider: Do our actions dismantle institutional and systemic racism, LGBTQIA+ oppression, classism and or sexism? What about disaster capitalism? Are we amplifying historically silenced voices? The list goes on and is location-specific. Then, and only then, can a community begin effectively reducing its pre-hazard vulnerability and strengthening its adaptive capacity for hazard recovery.
The bottom line?
The process to establish good hazard governance relies on people at the helm actively working against systemic oppression. But that’s not it. After all, this is written by a planning student. So, how can planners contribute? The answer lies in our planning tools. By utilizing risk assessments, participatory planning, spatial data analysis, census data and community engagement, we can facilitate good hazard management. Through thoughtful, equitable actions, planners can develop building codes, zoning regulations, recovery planning, environmental restorations, structural mitigation and public education that directly meet community objectives.
As someone interested in the impacts of natural hazards on Rural Communities of Color (RCoC), I often think about the possible barriers I will encounter in those areas. How will I overcome or even challenge these centuries-old systems? While I can’t answer that exactly, I can say this: When a community-wide crisis occurs, like a hazard, it is not enough to solely invite people to the table. But instead to redefine it. I hope you all join me in doing so.
I want to thank Dr. Ross for speaking to our class and dedicating her research to such important work.
Zuri Garcia hails from the Lone Star State, where she graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelor of Science in Applied Learning and Development. After her undergraduate degree, she became an organizer for low-wage workers and then became a second-grade Dual Language teacher in a Spanish immersion program.
Garcia focuses on emergency management and livestock evacuation planning for rural communities, particularly the people of color who live there. Her work seeks to elevate rural voices and increase their representation in the national conversation on empowering black and brown communities. She plans to couple Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) with computer science to improve how rural spaces manage and mitigate natural disasters.