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Eleanor Ouimet

University of Connecticut

Breakout Room 1.


Ethnography; ESS vulnerability; Response Diversity

How can the human dimensions of disaster impacts be more accurately captured and represented in the analysis, modeling and simulation of disasters?

The objective of disaster research is largely to decrease the loss of life from natural hazards. However; these efforts falter due to a lack of community engagement in high-risk areas and a paucity of ethnographic data from which to base appropriate and effective actions and policy. Furthermore; despite increasing scholarly attention to disaster risk reduction; survival post-event is becoming increasingly difficult for marginalized communities who are often left to ‘die another day’ when hazard events exacerbate the stressors caused by poverty; structural violence; and systemic racism. This intersection of socioeconomic vulnerability and hazard risk underlies the fomentation of ‘hazards’ into ‘disasters’ - disasters which leave entire communities even more vulnerable to the future shocks. However; the pre-emptive integration of ethnographic data collection in high risk/ high vulnerability areas can increase the efficacy and equity of disaster response plans by illuminating the social and environmental injustice that leaves these communities most vulnerable to hazards and excluded from and/or discriminated against during preparedness efforts; decision-making; and recovery. It can also aid in motivating community participation in disaster preparedness efforts. Examples of relevant ethnographic data include values; norms; beliefs; personal histories; kin networks; communication strategies; power relations; socioeconomic disparities; trusted sources of information; etc. Ethnographic data collection can improve disaster response and recovery in an integrated system in which high-risk communities are characterized by their overlapping social; ecological; and infrastructural vulnerability; by identifying the roots of vulnerability and by accompanying communities in their efforts to prepare for future hazard scenarios.

What type of data and supporting research infrastructure would be necessary to enable novel, transdisciplinary approaches to answering these and other human-centered disaster questions?

Although disaster science remains largely dominated by engineering subfields; disasters are manifested from human behaviors and decision-making – the societal values; norms; and beliefs that prioritize some over others; as well as from individual experiences with the policies and power dynamics that dictate top-down response and local recovery. Beyond the difficult task of understanding how these issues interface with infrastructural safety; we must also be able to address and remedy the ‘wicked’ problems of human decision-making and behavior. This requires an approach that simultaneously takes social; infrastructural; and ecological issues into consideration in anticipation of the next disaster. One such approach is the Eco-Social-Structural (ESS) vulnerability framework (Shoreman-Ouimet 2021). The ESS framework is premised on the assumption that the transition from hazard to disaster occurs when vulnerability in three areas (environmental exposure; infrastructural risk; and sociocultural inequity) is overlapping and that the severity of disasters increases with the vulnerability of each sector. The framework is designed to assess where preemptive community-based ethnographic data may be most effective in engaging stakeholders in long-term preparedness building and mitigating inequities in response and recovery. Methodologically; the parameters set by the interdisciplinary evaluation of environmental exposure; infrastructural risk; and the geo spatiality of social vulnerability to hazard events informs the collection of ethnographic data in areas at greatest ESS risk; enabling researchers to understand; more holistically; the underlying contributors to risk and vulnerability in specific communities; and to inform the development of effective modes of information dissemination; risk communication; and support.

In what ways can US-Japan collaborations advance these questions in new and important ways?

Understanding cultural response diversity; or how individuals and societies rank the consequences of disaster; can reveal why some communities and/or policymakers choose to invest in disaster preparedness and/or the factors impeding their ability to do so. Cultural values and ranking systems; for instance; may not align with policy-makers’ measures of safety or predicted human behavior as many of these calculations are based on models rather than community-specific understandings of cultural values and motivation. Understanding human behavior in these scenarios requires examining the lenses through which communities perceive their relationship to the environment and respond to hazard risk. Who do they trust for information and support? How do past experiences with disaster influence decision-making during an evacuation? How do belief systems impact people’s relationship with authorities and how do these perceptions influence their response to hazard risks? Where do people turn in times of crisis; and why? Transdisciplinary US-Japan collaborations can provide an unparalleled data bank of disaster events and experiences from which to examine the efficacy of disaster preparedness and recovery practices. Perhaps more importantly; they provide the opportunity to compile large-scale ethnographic data collections from which to assess cultural response diversity across different communities; regions; nations; and hazard types; as well as to identify the regions and communities at the greatest eco-social-structural (ESS) risk across the two nations. These are the data points that must undergird disaster prevention and resilience efforts; for although the frequency of hazard events will only increase with climate change; disasters; themselves; are not inevitable.

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