In the days following the aftermath of Hurricane Laura, the social impacts facing recovery efforts in Gulf Coast communities will be widespread and persistent, particularly in the context of COVID-19, says Virginia Tech expert Liesel Ritchie.

Quoting Ritchie

“The COVID-19 pandemic will make it very challenging for disaster recovery and resilience in the Gulf Coast region,” says Ritchie. “We anticipate psychosocial stress, social disruption, and strain on public services. Stress and anxiety — already elevated due to the pandemic — are likely to rise and further strain individuals, families, and the social fabric of communities.”

“We usually expect to see what we call a ‘therapeutic’ community following natural disasters, where people both within and outside affected areas come together in supportive and helpful ways. Social distancing requirements may curtail these types of activities and weaken once-robust social networks,” says Ritchie. “Communities that were already struggling economically because of the pandemic and other factors will undoubtedly be slow to recover.”

Although research has taught us a great deal about how disasters affect communities, Ritchie says it will be difficult to disentangle the social impacts of Hurricane Laura and those of the pandemic.

“We do know that even before landfall the pandemic was already affecting people’s actions. For example, some chose not to evacuate and go to shelters given concerns about the virus.”

Ritchie says that Lake Charles will face additional uncertainties in the wake of the chemical fire. “We consider this to be a ‘natech’ event, in which natural disasters trigger a technological hazard. This gives rise to a whole different set of potential social impacts.”

About Ritchie

Liesel Ritchie, a professor in the Virginia Tech Department of Sociology, has studied a range of disaster events, including the Exxon Valdez and BP Deepwater Horizon oil spills, the Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash release, Hurricane Katrina, and earthquakes in Haiti and New Zealand. Since 2000, her focus has been on the social impacts of disasters and community resilience, with an emphasis on technological hazards and disasters, social capital, and renewable resource communities, and she has published widely on these topics. Ritchie has more than 30 years of experience in research and evaluation working with federal agencies. She is also an affiliate of the Center for Coastal Studies at Virginia Tech. More here.

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