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Examples of Social Science During Environmental Crisis Events

Social science played a role in both of the major environmental crises described above. In these events and other crises, the social sciences (particularly but not uniquely sociology of risk, decision sciences, and community sociology) have contributed to both science during the crises and in the immediate aftermath as emergency response and recovery is underway. In many cases the research led to specific recommendations for action to improve crisis response. Several examples follow.

In 2007, Bangladesh was devastated by Tropical Cyclone Sidr, a Category 4 storm that killed 3,406 people and displaced or affected 27 million persons. A study by Paul (2012) examined factors that led to the resident's response to evacuation orders; the range of response is compelling, with only one-third of respondents evacuating to shelters. Policy recommendations to improve response during the crisis include expanded outreach programs, additional shelters, and evacuation drills.

From December 2006 to April 2007, the small Chilean town of Aysen (population 15,000) experienced intense seismic activity. Thousands of tremors were detected in the area, building up to a large earthquake on April 21, 2007. Though the earthquake itself was not a major event (magnitude 6.2), it did cause massive landslides, which in turn created localized tsunami waves that led to the death of 10 residents. During the seismic activity period, a parallel socio-political crisis developed, as controversy arose regarding the “decisions and best-suited measures required to prevent a potential disaster.” A study by Soule (2012) reported on the factors that led to the socio-political crisis, which was centered on the perception (and eventual realization) of an imminent disaster, and makes recommendations for improving risk management as a result. Soule concludes that these findings “must be connected to a broader tendency to reject technocratic and centralized risk management” and calls for the incorporation of social science information during the assessment and decision making stages of risk management.

Hurricane Katrina made US landfall in Louisiana on August 29, 2005 as a large Category 3 hurricane. The levee system protecting New Orleans was breached, and over 75 % of the city and nearby parishes were flooded. The storm (and subsequent flooding) led to 1,833 deaths and over $81 billion dollars in property damage. A relatively large social science literature has emerged about the event, much of it based on data collected during or immediately after the crisis. For example, Millin et al. (2006) examined disaster medical assistance in both Mississippi and a volunteer site near New Orleans. Treatment of chronic disease, primary health care and routine emergency care not related to the hurricane were the most common needs. The authors suggested that in addition to acute medical needs, “disaster planners should prepare to provide primary health care, administer vaccinations, and provide missing long-term medications.”

Vu and Van Landingham (2012) took advantage of survey work done just weeks prior to Hurricane Katrina, and were able to conduct a preand post-disaster assessment of physical and mental health consequences for working-age Vietnamese immigrants to New Orleans. The researchers located and re-assessed more than two-thirds of the original study cohort. They found statistically significant declines in physical and mental health status after the first anniversary of the storm, and substantial recovery by the second anniversary. Recovery varied by a number of key sociological variables (such as occupational type and marital status), and the authors suggested the results “present clear opportunities for targeted interventions.”

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