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LSU Geographer to Participate in Major Oil Spill Research

More than a year after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill devastated coastal communities in Louisiana, there are still sections of oiled coastlines, livelihoods hanging in the balance and many lingering questions about the long-term impacts of the disaster.

Personal resilience: individual families taking action to protect themselves against flooding near Morgan City during the Mississippi River flood of 2011. Photo: Craig Colten

One concern in particular haunts those affected: can their community bounce back from such a terrible blow? An LSU researcher has teamed up with a multi-institutional group to determine how disaster-impacted communities fight back from the brink of collapse.

Craig Colten, Carl O. Sauer Professor of Geography at LSU, is part of a multi-university team that will be researching health effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  Funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, or NIEHS, a division of the National Institutes of Health, the five-year project will receive more than $25 million. Colten will be working most directly with researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

“The blowout in the Gulf last year has been referred to as the greatest environmental calamity in our country’s history, yet there were two spills off the Louisiana coast in the late 1970s that were the largest U.S. spills up to that point in time,” Colten said. “Fishermen and their families, oilfield workers and businesses in the coastal communities are no strangers to historic oil spills, to say nothing of the more frequent impacts from hurricanes.”

Colten, a historical geographer, will head up a team seeking to identify traditional elements of resilience that have enabled coastal communities to endure and recover from disruptive events over the past century.  His work will trace historical responses to hurricanes, floods, economic turmoil and previous oil spills. 

Coastal clean up in near Panama City Florida - giant machines collected sand from the beaches and filtered out tar balls from BP oil release. Photo: Craig Colten

“We will seek to identify the many ways these resilient folks managed to rebound and adapt to disruptions,” he said.  “Sometimes solutions are well known to experienced local residents with generations of experience in coping with irregular, but not unexpected, traumatic events.”

In the course of this research, he will identify social capacities that have enabled coastal societies to cope with disruptions and to bounce back after previous calamities. Mechanisms used to cope and recover that derive from tradition and not government programs are vitally important to the mental and public health of a community, but have been overlooked in other studies.

The ultimate objective is to work with a community outreach team and to help strengthen regional capacity to deal with future oil spills and other disruptions by restoring and strengthening traditional elements of resilience.

Colten has also been actively involved in hurricane research from the standpoint of historical geography and is an expert on New Orleans’ past.  For the past several years he has been collaborating with scholars at the Community and Regional Resilience Institute based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to research the recovery from Hurricane Katrina.  Also, he participated in the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Strategic Sciences Working Group, which developed tools to help effectively respond to environmental events like the Macondo oil release.

His publications include “Perilous Place, Powerful Storms,” which focuses on weaknesses existing in New Orleans’ infrastructure before Katrina hit that set the stage for the disaster that played out after the storm’s impact, and the award-winning “An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans From Nature.”