Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Oil Spills and Community Resilience: Uneven Impacts and Protection in Historical Perspective

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Oil Spills and Community Resilience: Uneven Impacts and Protection in Historical Perspective

Article excerpt

Native Americans, Acadians, Islenos, African-Americans, Dalmatians/Croats, Filipinos, Vietnamese, and Cambodians constitute Louisiana's remarkably diverse coastal population. They live in linear villages along the region's bayous and rivers, or in small coastal ports oriented to harvesting the sea and nearby estuaries. Many are economically dependent on marine resources such as oysters, shrimp, and crabs for their livelihood and their sustenance (Gramling and Hagelman 2005; Davis 2013). They have, in many respects, learned to live with the well-known, albeit irregular, and sometimes devastating hurricane impacts. Experience with a common, if erratic meteorological hazard has reinforced three key traditional resilient capacities: social networks, mobility, and ingenuity (Colten and others 2012). Family and community networks provide support in the wake of devastating storms. Mobility has enabled individuals to either relocate geographically to safer locations or to shift economic activities to ride out the disruption. Ingenuity and inventiveness have provided means to adapt and regroup in the wake of extreme weather.

Oil spills have been a recurring threat to livelihoods in this region since the 1930s; however, they pose a different set of challenges than hurricanes. While responses to the 1930s-era oil spills reflected a reliance on the local trinity of resilient practices, post-2000 gushers in the gulf have exposed an inability of communities to adapt to the massive uncertainties that they produce, particularly in light of the very different legal climate that frames these events.

This paper traces the historical emergence of resilient practices in coastal Louisiana and compares the effectiveness of community-based, locally adapted, inherent resilience with top-down, formal resilience in terms of hurricanes and oil spills. Additionally it will identify points of opportunity to fortify resilience by integrating inherent and formal resilience.


Resilience, at least in the realm of social sciences, means the ability of a society to absorb the impacts of an external disturbance, to recover and rebuild itself to a functional state (National Academy of Sciences 2012). In order to absorb a blow, society needs to be able to plan for events and organize at a sufficient level to mitigate impacts. Tom Wilbanks identifies the four elements of resilience as the ability to anticipate disruptive events, to reduce their impacts, to respond effectively to an event, and to recover from it (Wilbanks 2008). This definition covers the fundamental capacities and provides a useful framework for this discussion, but there are many nuances of resilience that need to be considered. It also recognizes resilience as a process and not an outcome, which guides our efforts to document actions and not static demographic or economic measures.

We refer to locally adapted, community-based practices that provide families and communities with essential tools as "inherent resilience" (Colten and others 2012; see Cutter and others 2008). (1) These capacities are not found in emergency plans and manuals, and they do not have government or corporate finances or infrastructure supporting and sustaining them between events. These practices are placed based, they reside in social memory, and communities draw on them when needed (Adger and others 2005; Colten and Sumpter 2009; Adger and others 2011; Colten and others 2012). Their somewhat ephemeral qualities mean they hold less value in terms of anticipating disruptions, but at the same time, they emerge, even if in a fragmented way, in the wake of an event and operate at the local level even before government or corporate responders have arrived. They also persevere well after an event during the long-term recovery and exist in a somewhat dormant state between infrequent events. A long-term perspective is necessary to see the reappearance of these practices following extended intervals between extreme events. …

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