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Adapting in the Face of Disaster

Spring 2013 | By Kathy Mayer. Photo by Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection.

(Left) An Oklahoma farmer raises his fence to prevent it from being buried by drifting sand. (Right) This Kansas farmer was a Dust Bowl candidate for rural resettlement. Photos by Arthur Rothstein, 1936, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, left [LC-USF34- 004051-E] and right [LC-USF34-004222-E]

When disaster strikes, some people emerge stronger and some do not. Whether in response to the ravages of nature, the impact of war, or the pitfalls of daily life, some among us prevail while others struggle.

College of Liberal Arts faculty in history, sociology, and political science are examining the concept of resilience, seeking to better understand the conditions, external and internal, that lead to different outcomes. Their research assesses the risk factors that might affect the ability to be resilient, where the ability to adapt well is prevalent, how communities can develop resilient qualities before a disaster strikes, and what we can learn from survivors.

Rural Struggles

During years of research in agricultural history, R. Douglas Hurt, professor and department head of history, has examined how countless men and women who farm face hardship. "Men and women in farming know they are at the mercy of environmental conditions beyond their control and politics and economics beyond their control. They have to be very adaptable and work within and sometimes outside the system to have economic success," says Hurt, author of The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History.

Hurt grew up in the 1950s in Kansas, during a time when the area suffered a prolonged drought and endless dust storms—and at a time when people still remembered the devastation of the 1930s. "The wind would blow; everything got dirty. I can remember my mother standing in the kitchen, looking out the window to the west, and saying, 'I hope it's not going to start again.'" As a high school student, Hurt worked for area farmers, learning to plow, shock feed, drill wheat, haul hay—and persevere.

The commitment and ability required to keep going despite the odds can be difficult for non-farmers to understand, asserts Hurt. "Men and women in farming are the best 'next-year' people in the world. Next year it will rain. Next year the corn crop will be bountiful. Next year will be better because it has to be," he explains

He describes the Last Man's Club in Dalhart, Texas, during the 1930s Dust Bowl as an example of a support group for those sticking it out. "They experienced black blizzards, some of the worst soil erosion, and the most dire agricultural conditions. You could be a member of the club if you promised to be the last person to leave the Dust Bowl," Hurt says. "They showed incredible tenacity. The feeling was, grab a root and hang on. We've got to get through this."

That tenacity, however, can have adverse consequences when people hang on too long, he says. "There is a point at which the numbers are against you, in that your operation is too small, your productivity is too low, the income you generate from your farm is simply not adequate to sustain an adequate standard of living."

So some Dust Bowl farmers on the Great Plains had to cut their losses—whether they wanted to or not. The federal government identified wind-eroded areas where the soil wasn't very productive and bought out the farmers living there, moving them off the land, pulling out fence rows, and demolishing houses. Buffalo grass was reestablished, and since 1960, much of this land has been designated national grasslands, serving as a partial footprint of the Dust Bowl days.

Studying agricultural history preserves the record of how American farmers and the federal government have adapted and responded to drought in the past—informing those who will experience it in the future. "In the matter of drought and resiliency, for example, farmers who are now experiencing severe drought are going to know what to expect, not just next year, but several years in the future, because the impacts are not going to instantly go away," says Hurt, referencing the nation's drought in the summer of 2012.

While farmers can adjust their management practices to some degree, says Hurt, "you have to have some institutional memory and learning, particularly in terms of governmental programmatic activities—certain things that worked in the past, and maybe for a while they weren't necessary, but at least the knowledge base and a programmatic structure are there."

During the droughts of the 1950s, for example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture could return to some of the relief ideas that had worked in the 1930s, working with railroads to move cattle feed to drought-stressed areas at reasonable prices, and providing quick loans at relatively low interest rates so that farmers who could no longer afford seed, feed, or basic operating costs could get back on their feet.

Hurt's current research projects are a book on agriculture in the confederate states and a worldwide history of the Green revolution. "As an historian, agriculture is very interesting to me—its prosperity, despair, racism, gender differences and political conflicts," he says.

Families Under Stress

Sarah Mustillo
Sarah Mustillo, associate professor of sociology, studies risk factors affecting children’s physical and mental health and the support structures that can offset those risks. Photo by Mark Simons

While Hurt analyzes resilience as it relates to agriculture, Sarah Mustillo, associate professor of sociology and a University Faculty Scholar, studies how parenting, family structure, and adversity affect children's physical and mental health.

"My work focuses more on risk factors than on resilience, but the two are often two sides of the same coin," Mustillo explains. For example, she says, "low self‑esteem is a risk factor for adverse outcomes in adolescence, but high self‑esteem is a resilience factor."

But risk and resilience operate on multiple levels: individual, family, and community. "Think about poverty as a risk factor," she says. "Living in a poor household is associated with innumerable physical and mental health issues, but living in a poor neighborhood and even a poor state adds additional layers of risk. The same can be said for resilience. Social support is a strong protective factor and can buffer the effects of acute and chronic stress. Like poverty, social support can be experienced at the individual level, but it can also exist at the level of school and community."

Mustillo also examines risk factors early in a child's life. While a child might not remember the experiences related to these risks, they still have an impact. "Experiencing certain types of risk in early life—prenatal, infancy, and early childhood—can interfere with the development of individual resilience. Most people can bounce back from a single bad experience, but that doesn't mean they won't experience negative emotions or need time to recover," she says.

Multiple risk factors such as poverty and parental violence, however, can increase the odds for adverse outcomes, she says. "Risk factors have a way of accumulating over time, as well, but the individual coping skills of the child, the strength of the parent-child relationship, and the stability of the community can all offset the impact."

For children, she notes, "It starts at the family level. Do they have supportive and nurturing relationships with parents with good attachment and communication?" Community support also makes a difference. "Are there resources in the school, the neighborhood, the area, to help children and families who experience stressful circumstances?"

In a study that she is currently completing, Mustillo looked at how traumatic combat exposure, resulting in PTSD and depression following deployment for some soldiers, can affect parenting. "We examined several risk and protective factors, such as strong marital relationships and high levels of unit support, which is the social support received from one's military unit while deployed, and found that both are associated with fewer perceptions of parenting problems," she says.

The study was cross-sectional rather than longitudinal, says Mustillo, so "in the case of marital quality, we can't say that stronger marriages lead to fewer parenting problems—only that there is a relationship."

Mustillo is currently co-principal investigator of an ongoing Department of Defense project examining the effects of multiple parental military deployments on child well-being. This joint research with professor Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, a professor of human development and family studies and the director of Purdue's Center for Families and Military Family Research Institute, is in its early stages; Mustillo and MacDermid Wadsworth have only recently begun to analyze the data.

Based on previous research, however, Mustillo is certain that parents can play a key role in helping children develop confidence that they can achieve specific tasks or goals. "Parents can lead by example, and also teach coping skills, encouraging development of self-efficacy," she says. "The extent to which it can be developed is affected by individual, genetic, and environmental factors."

It Takes a Village

Daniel Aldrich in Tohoku
Daniel Aldrich, an associate professor of political science who studies community resilience following natural disasters, stands only a few hundred feet from the remains of a downtown area in the Tohoku region, which sat adjacent to the bay where the tsunami entered the village. Photo courtesy of Daniel Aldrich

Daniel Aldrich, associate professor of political science and currently a Fulbright Research Professor at Tokyo University, joins Hurt and Mustillo in their efforts to explain resilient behavior and the risks that might prevent it. Aldrich studies how communities respond to and recover from extreme environmental factors—those caused by natural disasters. He describes resilience not only as an individual trait, but also one best nurtured by a community. "Resilience is a social phenomenon, which means that our ability to 'bounce back' from a crisis is often a function not just of ourselves but also our friends, family, acquaintances, and neighbors."

While individuals can develop resiliency on their own, doing so can be an exhausting exercise, Aldrich says. "People who do well, whether after disasters, as Olympic athletes, or in their careers and relationships—are usually people who can connect to others, feel empathy, and work together."

In Japan, he is studying disaster recovery and changes in government and civic engagement that have occurred since the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. He's witnessing significant examples of the value of community in the country's recovery.

"I've seen some great progress made by small-scale, bottom-up projects, such as the Ibasho project in Ofunato, run by architect Emi Kiyota. She has worked with the local community to raise interest in and funds for an elder care community center, which will allow the local elderly survivors to work as volunteers," he says. "This provides a place for people to chat and mingle, when they might otherwise be shut in their small, temporary homes."

He also hears stories of people using simple acts to retain a sense of community. One group drives around with free ice cream for school children, and another delivers free seasonal vegetables to older survivors who have lost their gardens. "These are thoughtful, bottom-up kinds of policies that don't require a great deal of money, but instead require a recognition of the role of social capital in the rebuilding process," Aldrich says.

A lack of social assets can deter resiliency, he explains, particularly around the Fukushima radiation leak. "More than any radioactive contamination, the biggest health impacts have come from anxiety over radiation and health—growing obesity rates in children not allowed to play outside and a rise in divorce and domestic violence because of these stressors. In many ways, the most severe impacts are tied directly into human relationships."

Nurturing resilience, he says, comes from letting connections develop naturally rather than trying to bridge wide gaps. "When we take our children to the park, our kids play together, and we begin making friends with other parents. We might go out to a kids' concert together, or perhaps have a meal together. We take smaller risks to build these ties initially, and then we can build trust."

Whether it is the camaraderie of the Last Man's Club, the protection of family structure, or the social capital built with those around us, it's clear that the ties of community relationships remain a cornerstone of resiliency. Social relationships matter in times of stress or loss. Deepening our understanding of those bonds and how governments can sustain communities in times of stress may create strategies for assisting those at greatest risk. Why, asks Hurt, would you want to reinvent the wheel? "The past doesn't absolutely repeat itself," he says, "but I think there are certain lessons within general parameters that make sense."

Building Resilience

Daniel Aldrich and his son
Daniel Aldrich, associate professor of political science, and his son Gavriel prepare to experience a magnitude 7 earthquake in a simulator in Tohoku, Japan. Photo courtesy of Daniel Aldrich

While some agencies tally lives lost and infrastructure destroyed following natural disasters, Daniel Aldrich, associate professor of political science, looks at the social aspects—how many people stayed in the area, how they worked together as a community to recover, and the importance of this social capital in recovering and rebuilding.

In his newest book, Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery, Aldrich reports on his studies of four regions and how they fared after major disasters: the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake in Tokyo, Japan; the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, Japan; the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Tamil Nadu, India; and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

“Despite different time periods, cultures, government capacities, and levels of development, all four cases showed that areas with more social capital made effective and efficient recoveries from crises through coordinated efforts and cooperative activities,” says Aldrich. Social capital, he explains, is a term to describe the web of relationships we have with our friends, family, and our wider clan, however we define that clan, or “the ties that bind us to our fellow people.”

He found patterns of resilience. And he learned that communities with robust social networks fared better in keeping people in the area, rebuilding and returning to normal. Social resources were the “engine for recovery.”

While well-intended, Aldrich asserts, “centralized plans for recovery are flawed.”  Instead, he suggests that policies and programs that build social capital be created.

“We must use our knowledge of the power of social networks to help survivors and planners build resilience through deliberate policies leveraging the power of people, not just physical infrastructure,” Aldrich proposes in his book. “Ensuring that social capital is on the agenda will create future plans that generate effective and efficient recovery and build resilient communities.”



Having grown up in a farming community, I agree that the close family unity necessitated by the hard work of farms does create resilience. Unfortunately, that family ethic is fast disappearing from our society here in the U.S. I have worked on the recovery of several disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 central Indiana floods, the March 2, 2012 southern Indiana/Kentucky tornadoes, and many undeclared disasters in between. I have seen much the same thing as Mr. Aldrich describes: a sound social structure is very important to the recovery of the community and, therefore, the individual/family. From my experiences, I have come to believe that a solid, well-organized long-term recovery group, formed primarily of local community members, can be amazingly instrumental in helping to form this social closeness within the entire community post-disaster. I also believe that pre-disaster planning, if done properly to include the entire community, can go a long way in helping to develop this social capital before the disaster hits, thereby having a positive effect on the resilience of the community. I would be interested to hear if you have seen the same results.

Barbara Kelb

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