Current Projects and Grants

Enhancing Community Resilience in the Acute Aftermath of Disaster: Evaluation of a Disaster Mental Health Intervention (for Flood-Prone Communities in Haiti and Nepal)

Co-PIs: Courtney Welton-Mitchell and Leah James
Partnering organizations: Soulaje Lespri Moun (Haiti) and Transcultural Psychosocial Organization-Nepal (Nepal)
Project length: 2014-2016
Study locations: Port-au-Prince, Haiti and Kailali District, Nepal

Purpose: Annual flooding is common in Haiti - during the hurricane season, and in Nepal - during the monsoon season, disproportionately impacting impoverished communities living in low-lying areas. This study aims to evaluate a culturally-adapted community-based disaster mental health intervention designed to mitigate the impact of chronic annual flooding among vulnerable communities in Haiti (N = 480) and Nepal (N = 480). The study uses a longitudinal randomized controlled trial design to determine if the intervention is effective in enhancing community resilience - by improving mental health and increasing engagement in disaster preparedness and response, including enabling community members to care for themselves and provide assistance to others when a natural disaster occurs.

Expected outcomes: The study will help build evidence on the effectiveness of low-cost, low-intensive disaster mental health interventions easily adapted to specific cultural contexts. It will strengthen understanding of how to mitigate the mental health and social consequences of disasters such as floods, and increase engagement in disaster preparedness and response. It will also increase understanding of the role of cultural factors in preparedness, response, and recovery.

This project is funded through [ELRHA: Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance and R2HC (Rapid): Research for Health in Humanitarian Crisis Donors: DFID and Wellcome Trust


Adaptation and Evaluation of a Disaster Mental Health Intervention for Earthquake Survivors in Kathmandu Valley

Co-PIs: Courtney Welton-Mitchell and Leah James
Partnering organizations: Transcultural Psychosocial Organization Nepal
Project length: 2015-2016
Study locations: Kathmandu Valley, Bhaktapur District, Nepal

Purpose: On 25th April 2015 Nepal experienced a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, followed by another of 7.3 magnitude quake on 12th May 2015. More than 8,000 people died, and over 480,000 houses were destroyed. Needs assessments in the immediate aftermath indicated high rates of mental health symptoms. Yet little is known about what type of mental health interventions are effective following this type of disaster, and in countries such as Nepal. Using a step-wise cluster comparison, this project expands disaster mental health intervention research implemented elsewhere in Nepal with flood-prone communities, to earthquake affected areas in Kathmandu Valley. Additionally, we draw on previous work with earthquake survivors in Haiti to adapt intervention content to the specific needs of earthquake survivors in Nepal. The research focuses on two distinct populations: local mental health service providers (themselves earthquake survivors) (N = 60) and displaced persons in two communities in Bhaktapur District (N = 240).

Expected outcomes: The study will help build evidence on the effectiveness of low-cost, low-intensive disaster mental health interventions easily adapted to specific cultural contexts. It will strengthen understanding of how to mitigate the mental health and social consequences of disasters such as earthquakes, and increase engagement in disaster preparedness and response. Additionally, it will increase understanding of how to support local service providers on the front lines of community response.

This project is funded through [ELRHA: Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance and R2HC (Rapid): Research for Health in Humanitarian Crisis Donors: DFID and Wellcome Trust


Effects of Technological Disasters on Dimensions of Social Capital: A Longitudinal Study of the 2008 TVA Kingston Fossil Plant Ash Release

PI: Liesel Ritchie, University of Colorado Boulder
Nnenia Campbell, University of Colorado Boulder

The concept of social capital is multidimensional, consisting of such elements as attachment to place, social cohesion and support, and social network density. As of 2008, there was little research examining the contribution of social capital to disaster resilience.

This National Science Foundation-funded study examines the social impacts of the failure of a coal fly ash retention pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tennessee in December 2008. The largest such incident in U.S. history, this technological disaster released more than 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash across almost 300 acres.

The research design for the study employs a mixed-method approach with two primary data collection components: structured face-to-face interviews, and self-administered household surveys using an ex post facto research design in the impact (Roane) and control (Anderson) counties. These post-event data will be compared with predisaster data from the 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey. In addition to making pre- and post-event comparisons, the study will also follow both impact and control communities over time.

The project will make a major contribution to scholarly understanding of the effects of disasters on measures of social capital. It will also add to the literature on the consequences of technological disasters, with a particular emphasis on their impacts on trust in institutions, as well as the effects of postdisaster litigation. The study has potential for transforming how researchers conceptualize and measure the social capital dimensions of disaster resilience—a fundamental issue in the field—and also for demonstrating how social indicators collected for other purposes can be productively used by disaster researchers.


Mitigating Litigating: RAPID Project to Study Social and Psychological Impacts of the 2012 BP Claims Settlement

PI: Liesel Ritchie, University of Colorado Boulder
Co-PI: Duane Gill, Oklahoma State University

On April 20, 2010 the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and started burning in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. The rig eventually sank, leaving a breached wellhead that released an estimated 185 to 205 million gallons of crude oil in the months before it was capped and permanently sealed. Under direction from the Federal government, BP set aside $20 billion to pay damage claims. However, the claims process became a bureaucratic and legal quagmire, as well as a source of contention and stress in coastal communities. This RAPID project supports research on how settlement and litigation processes in the aftermath of this technological disaster are influencing social and psychological recovery in the State of Alabama’s coastal communities.

More than 21 years of research on the long-term social impacts of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill (EVOS) revealed that much of the chronic, EVOS-related stress, anxiety, and social disruption were a byproduct of prolonged litigation which lasted almost two decades. However, there is a lack of empirical evidence regarding whether a more immediate resolution of disaster-related litigation helps to reduce the negative social impacts of protracted legal processes. This National Science Foundation-funded study will contribute substantially to the limited body of knowledge in this arena by advancing theoretical and conceptual understanding of social and psychological processes associated with rapid change, and how these affect coastal communities.

This research will advance understanding of ways in which post-disaster processes such as litigation and the timely settlement of damage claims can facilitate or hinder community recovery. This research is an explicit focus of the President’s reorganization of the Homeland Security and National Security Councils and is a priority of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. In addition, research results will be used to inform local, state, and federal initiatives with respect to community resilience to both technological and natural disasters.


Evaluation of the US Geological Survey (USGS) Science Applications for Risk Reduction (SAFRR) HayWired Scenario Project

PI: Liesel Ritchie, University of Colorado Boulder
Nnenia Campbell, University of Colorado Boulder
Jamie Vickery, University of Colorado Boulder
Allison Madera, University of Colorado Boulder

The purpose of SAFRR HayWired Scenario Project is to foster the use of science in decision-making associated with earthquake events in the Bay Area of San Francisco, California. The Hazards Center team is conducting the evaluation of this extensive effort, which engages multiple partners at local, regional, and national levels. The overarching purpose of the evaluation activities is to provide feedback and information to the USGS and its key stakeholders regarding the development, implementation, and immediate impacts (outcomes) of the Haywired Scenario.

The evaluation team will work with SAFRR personnel to examine the following general evaluation questions associated with the Haywired Scenario’s development and implementation across its different thematic areas:

  • How and to what extent have the Haywired Scenario Project activities and information provided as a result of the project enhanced awareness and stimulated behavior change related to mitigation and preparedness among participating stakeholder organizations?
  • How and to what extent has the Haywired Scenario Project enhanced coordination and collective action around mitigation and preparedness through the formation of networks?

Additional questions, as appropriate to different levels and types of involvement among stakeholder organizations, will include:

  • Which of the project’s strategies/activities have been most effective in engaging key stakeholders at the local and regional levels? Which have been least effective? Under what circumstances? Why?
  • Which of the project’s strategies/activities have been most effective in engaging new collaborators who have not been involved with prior scenarios? Which have been least effective? Under what circumstances? Why? What have been some of the challenges associated with engaging new collaborators who have not been involved with prior scenarios? How were these challenges addressed?

Collaborative Research: To Investigate and Document Social Impacts of High-Stakes Litigation Resolution in a Renewable Resource Community

PI: Liesel Ritchie, University of Colorado Boulder
PI: Duane Gill, Oklahoma State University

On March 24, 1989, the tanker vessel Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, a well-marked navigational hazard in the Valdez Arm of Prince William Sound (PWS), Alaska spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into one of the most pristine ecosystems in the world. In various ways, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (EVOS) continues to wreak havoc on the PWS’s ecosystem and renewable natural resources, as well as individuals, groups, and communities that have built their lives and culture on ecosystem resources.

The primary goal of this National Science Foundation-funded project is to document how the Supreme Court decision and subsequent disbursement of punitive damage awards in the EVOS case affects communities, groups, and individuals in a renewable resource community. This study builds directly upon research conducted in Cordova from 2000-2009 (NSF-funded #0082405, #0002572, and #0852932) and 2002-2004 and 2009 (qualitative research) to create a longitudinal data set designed to document community change and transformation associated with the EVOS, high-stakes litigation, resolution of litigation, and punitive damage payments.

This study has three primary objectives: 1) to expand and continue a line of inquiry on human impacts of the EVOS that began in 1989; 2) to examine how prolonged EVOS litigation has been associated with chronic stress, social disruption, and diminished social capital; and 3) to explore how and to what extent resolution of the long-term litigation influence renewable resource communities and groups.

The achievement of these objectives will provide empirical data on community change, disaster recovery, and personal adjustments that occur when fragile renewable resource communities are stressed by technological failure and long-term litigation. These results will also provide directives for understanding issues of vulnerability and enhancing the resiliency of renewable resource communities in the twenty-first century.


Evaluation Support to the US Department of the Interior Strategic Sciences Working Group

PI: Liesel Ritchie, University of Colorado Boulder

The Department of the Interior (DOI) Strategic Sciences Group (SSG) is an innovative approach to conducting science during crisis. Created by Secretarial Order in 2012, the mission of the SSG is to conduct interdisciplinary science-based assessments of environmental crises and build scenarios of the consequences for use by decision makers. In January 2013, Secretary Salazar directed the SSG to support the Department’s role on the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. In response, the SSG assembled a team of experts—Operational Group Sandy (OGS) —to develop scenarios during a week-long session in early March 2013. Scenarios varied in spatial and temporal scope and examined impacts on the ecology, economy, and people of the affected region. The purpose of OGS is to help inform the federal, state, and local response to rebuilding and restoring the US East Coast in the aftermath of one of the largest storms to ever impact the region.

The SSG engaged the Natural Hazards Center to conduct an evaluation of the SSG process. This effort was driven by a desire on the part of the SSG leadership and its supporters to better understand ways in which their activities might be improved in future crisis events. OGS participants were asked what they considered to be the keys to successful implementation of the SSG approach. Five essential elements were consistently raised: (1) Clarity of mission (including an understanding of the intended audience); (2) Strong SSG leadership; (3) Highly skilled facilitation; (4) Strong support staff; and (5) Appropriate expertise in the operational group and a willingness among participants to trust the process. Evidence of successful implementation was unanimously considered to be whether the information generated by the group was used by the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, as well as disseminated to and used by other stakeholders.


Evaluation of the US Geological Survey (USGS) Science Applications for Risk Reduction (SAFRR) Tsunami Scenario Project

PI: Liesel Ritchie, University of Colorado Boulder
Co-PI: Kathleen Tierney, University of Colorado Boulder
Nnenia Campbell, University of Colorado Boulder
Jamie Vickery, University of Colorado Boulder

The purpose of SAFRR Tsunami Scenario Project is to foster the use of science in decision-making associated with tsunami events. The Hazards Center team is conducting the evaluation of this extensive effort, which engages multiple partners at local, regional, and national levels. The evaluation activities for the Tsunami Scenario Project are providing feedback and information to the USGS and its partnering agencies that will support the development and successful implementation of the project. Specifically, the evaluation focuses on three key elements of the project: I) the engagement of port and harbor decision-makers in selected California cities; II) interagency coordination; and III) intra-agency coordination. Systematically examining these aspects of primary stakeholder participation will provide an understanding of the extent to which the project’s efforts to foster the use of science in decision making, including building networks among key decision-makers, are effective.  


Incorporating Social Science into NOAA’s Tsunami Program

PI: Christopher Gregg, East Tennessee State University
Co-PI: Liesel Ritchie, University of Colorado Boulder
Co-PI: Steve Meinhold, University of North Carolina, Wilmington

The large number of fatalities in some recent hazard events, including the 2004 Indian Ocean event and 2005 Hurricane Katrina, have reminded us of the complexity and dynamics of human behavior in response to warnings of hazards and risk communications, for both short fuse and longer fuse hazards. Yet, the relatively low death toll in the recent large, damaging tsunami that struck the Samoa Islands and Tonga in September 2009, due to effective pubic response, offers new hopes for decreasing tsunami injuries and fatalities through risk communications, such as those from NOAA Tsunami Warning Center’s (TWCs) and part of the TRP TsunamiReady Program (TRP).

Empirical social science research findings describe key factors that facilitate effective receipt of risk communications, accurate interpretations by emergency managers and the public, and effective responses. Moreover, theoretical models provide a holistic perspective of how these factors interact. A key challenge is that this knowledge has been underutilized in developing and refining TWC products and educational efforts linked to the growing TRP. Specific challenges with tsunami preparedness involve the usefulness of tsunami warning products disseminated by TWC and the effectiveness of the TRP. Furthermore, there is a need to merge social science research knowledge regarding human behavior in tsunamis with post-tsunami field survey teams conducted by physical tsunami scientists. This project supports NOAA’s Tsunami Program by using social science principles to identify strengths and weaknesses in TWC products and the TRP; provide guidance for improving products and education; develop a means to monitor and assess progress; and develop a repository for social science research findings, accessible by members of the disaster research community.

The rationale for this social science research is that through it NOAA can improve its mission to provide reliable tsunami forecasts and warnings and promote community resilience. Moreover, NOAA can better meet its commitment to ensuring that all customers can receive, understand, and respond appropriately to NOAA forecasts and warning products. Finally, social science can provide guiding tools for enhancing the community resilience activities linked to NOAA’s TRP.  


Chasing Ice Impact Study

PI: Liesel Ritchie, University of Colorado Boulder
Co-PI: Kathleen Tierney, University of Colorado Boulder
Nnenia Campbell, University of Colorado Boulder
Jamie Vickery, University of Colorado Boulder

Chasing Ice is an award-winning documentary that follows the work of the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), an initiative aimed at capturing the rapid melting of glaciers at multiple locations across the globe. James Balog, acclaimed environmental photojournalist and founder of the EIS, collaborates with a multidisciplinary team of scientists to collect time-lapse images that document glacial retreat across several years. This initiative aims to educate the public about the immediacy and effects of climate change with a goal of fostering public action to combat this global threat.

This study is designed to assess the impacts of Chasing Ice on attitudes and knowledge about climate change. The Natural Hazards Center (NHC) developed pre-and post-test survey instruments that were administered prior to and following screenings of the film in order to obtain 1) baseline information about audience members' pre-existing attitudes and beliefs about climate change and 2) potential shifts in these understandings as a result of having watched the documentary. The team has analyzed pre-and post-test surveys from more than 740 respondents in multiple locations across Colorado. Data collection and analysis will continue throughout the next year, and will include audiences from screenings in other regions throughout the United States. Future iterations of this project will also explore survey responses among individuals identified as "climate change skeptics" to determine the extent to which the film may potentially impact less receptive audiences.