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 Phillip Rollfing  

Disaster response

HRRC team mapping social vulnerability
of tsunami-ravaged Indian communities



In the wake of the devastating December 26, 2004 tsunamis that ravaged the coastal communities on the Indian Ocean, research scientists from the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center (HRRC) at Texas A&M University’s College of Architecture traveled to the hard-hit district of Tamil Nadu, on the southeastern coast of India, to assess regional response to the disaster and develop a social vulnerability profile, or map, that could ultimately assist disaster response initiatives throughout the world.

A social vulnerability map utilizes Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to merge geographical and government census data with information gathered through field observation and surveys, to relate the social characteristics of the target population with its disaster resilience.

“A lot of what we do here in the college is focused on the broader perspectives of the built environment,” explained urban planning professor Walter Gillis Peacock, director of the HRRC and a member of the tsunami team. “What we do, especially in planning, is look at the nature of the social systems that are also operating in those environments and what consequence that has for making communities more sustainable.”

“It is not simply where you live,” he added, “it is how many of your characteristics, in terms of access to resources, education, income, whether you are a renter or a homeowner, whether you have lots of children or no children at all — all of those factors contribute to potentially increasing your vulnerability.”

The tsunami, which killed an estimated 6,665 people in the study area and as many as 229,866 worldwide, presented the HRRC scientists with an opportunity to validate disaster research theories developed in the United States, in a completely different political, economic and social system.

“I don’t think that individual behavior varies a whole lot from one nation to another,” Peacock said. “It is the systems that create difference and in India, the economic system, the population’s social status and governmental systems are completely different. Those are the things that we are investigating.”

The assumption, added Carla Prater, an HRRC research scientist and the principal investigator on the tsunami team, is that the community characteristics — the local economy, the local and national government, the availability of non-governmental relief organizations — combined with the population’s social profile — education level, family size, income, religion — have a cumulative affect on the disaster recovery process and how quickly a specific region might recover.

“We want to create communities that are resilient in the face of a disaster,” said Prater. “We used to talk about disaster resistance, but that has connotations that are not as useful as the concept of resilience, because resilience implies that yes, you can absorb the impact and you can bounce back, you can recover.”

By developing a social vulnerability map, disaster officials and relief organizations can better predict where and what sectors of a community are going to have a harder time dealing with, responding to and recovering from a natural disaster.

“Using GIS, we can create the layers of both physical and social vulnerability and look at the intersections of those two,” said Prater. “That is what we are interested in.”

Though the vulnerability mapping initiative benefited tremendously from the Indian government’s extensive census data, it was crucial that the research team combine the census information with data gained in the field, mostly through household surveys.

“We start out with the census data and get as refined as we can,” explained Prater. “However, we have found that in relying on the census data alone, you can come up with some odd things, because the data is collected at a very high level of aggregation. So we have to go out and check the neighborhoods to see if there aren’t any anomalies.”

Part of this reconnaissance, or “ground-truthing” effort involved interviewing government officials and individuals working for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in the recovery effort. In turn, many of the NGOs agreed to assist with the actual field surveys of the tsunami survivors.

“Our original plan was to do some surveying; interviewing some households in a couple of recovering communities,” said Peacock. “Because we were able to contact people who work with NGOs, we are now going to sample 17 different communities and do random samples, interviewing a total of 1000 households in those communities.”

“This is an incredible opportunity,” Prater added. “You have no idea how rare such data are. In social science it is very difficult and expensive to generate our data because it involves this really tough and time-consuming expensive research. So, to get it in a third-world country is practically unheard of.”

Language was another obstacle the Texas A&M research team had to overcome. Though English is widely spoken by India’s educated classes, many of the tsunami victims speak Tamil, the local language of the state of Tamil Nadu. Not only did they have to translate their survey into Tamil, they also had to locate people who spoke that language who were qualified to conduct the interviews.

The survey establishes the respondents’ household characteristics — what caste they belong to, how many children they have, its sex and dependency ratios, overall socio-economic status and religious characteristics. It also seeks information about the casualties and deaths suffered from the tsunami, the types of damage endured, and the impact on the respondents’ physical possessions, homes and the assets. And finally, it asks what kind of resources they have received since the disaster, and where the help came from.

The researchers also learned a lot about working with the Indian government’s somewhat bloated bureaucracy.

“We would walk into these rooms and there would be 15 or 20 desks with somebody at every desk,” recalled Peacock. “And by the time we got through, we’d have almost talked to everybody at everyone of those desks.”

But as a result of their sometimes arduous efforts, the researchers agreed, they should have enough data to complete a very detailed statistical analyses that backs up all of the mapping procedures they have developed. The team postulates the data will demonstrate that certain types of households were more likely to have suffered damage than others.

“It is not simply where you live,” said Peacock, “it is how many of your characteristics — in terms of access to resources, education, income, whether your are a renter or a homeowner, whether you have lots of children or no children at all, all of those factors — contribute to potentially increasing your vulnerability.

Once complete, the social vulnerability map can be used by state and local governments for purposes of planning and organizational structuring in the development of the emergency management organization.

Additionally, vulnerability maps can help NGOs to decide where they are going to target their community development efforts. In developing a more disaster resilient community, it will help them spot an area or population that has not been well served in the past.

The research team’s findings could also enhance knowledge about disaster recovery and mitigation efforts back in the United States.

“It is a big mistake to think that we are going to go out there and learn something that is only applicable there,” said Peacock. “Quite often, what we learn is directly applicable here. The moment you forget that, is the moment that your research turns into something less than you want, because there are lessons that can be learned both ways.”

In fact, the whole notion of vulnerability emerged out of research done in the developing world,” Peacock continued. “We have been increasingly applying it here in the United States and have found it to be extraordinarily relevant. Because the United States is in such a data-rich environment, we have been able to take these notions and push them much further. So in some sense, all we are really doing is going back to the source, where a lot of this vulnerability work was originally done.”

The HRRC researchers, which included Peacock, Prater and graduate students Himanshu Grover and Sudha Arlikatti, plan to publish their results in Indian journals.

“We hope that some of these results can be utilized, said Prater, “and that the Indian researchers can generate this sort of research for other states.”



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Dec. 26, 2004 Tsunami strikes coastal community