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Mills Looks At Long-Term Consequences Of Disasters

Published: November 1, 2010

Geography’s Jacqueline Mills knows that disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have environmental and social consequences that exist long past the events.

Mills, who joined the university in 2009, is an expert in the use of geographic information systems (GIS) and believes the technology can be a valuable tool in mapping out the extent of damage as the Gulf Coast continues to recover.

“New Orleans and coastal Louisiana have been described as ‘sticky places,’” said Mills. “It is a place where people don’t leave. This latest human-made disaster represents an erosion of that social cohesion. While it is popular for the media to look back at a disaster one year later, a look back after five years is rare but this is what I want to do–to keep looking at impacted places years after the initial event. An editorial published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune speculated that, after Hurricane Katrina’s fifth anniversary, nobody outside the region would care.”

Mills’ interest in natural disasters is rooted in her pursuit of a Ph.D. from Louisiana State University in 2005. “I defended my doctorate in the beginning of August and on Aug. 29, Hurricane Katrina hit,” recalled the Georgia native, who received her bachelor’s in 2000 and her master’s in 2001 from the University of Memphis. “I was taking classes in environmental law at Tulane University in New Orleans when it struck. It wasn’t an experience I care to repeat.”

The state’s emergency operations center in Baton Rouge recruited her GIS expertise to help assemble satellite or aerial imagery to decide where a helicopter could land or what convalescent homes needed evacuation. “When the Katrina operation was wrapping up, Hurricane Rita arrived, the fourth-most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded,” she said. “We then just applied the geospatial approaches we had been using in the response to Katrina to Rita.”

A temporary position at Louisiana State University in the service of state and local governments turned into a two-year position running an information clearing house. “We were running one of the largest spatial data clearing houses in the U.S.,” she said. “What we did was later used as a model by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.”

Mills returns to Louisiana to pursue her research with her husband, Andrew Curtis, a faculty member in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity at USC. “We map the recovery in Orleans and St. Bernard Parishes,” she recalled. “According to our research, recovery has been spotty. Some places are coming back and some are not. There is vegetation overgrowth and blight damage. In a tropical climate like Louisiana, that happens fast.”

Mills believes that recovery represents a secondary disaster that rarely receives the same media attention as the original catastrophe. “When there is flooding, there are cameras to record people stuck on their roofs. Drama like that gets a response. But there is a reluctance to look back in five years or even six months,” she explains. “Recovery is just not as eye-catching. It is sad to see the slow decline of places that once were vibrant communities. There are major long-term effects on mental health that can linger for years. There can be a loss of medical services, grocery stores and public transit. These conditions can be more damaging than disaster.”

As a recent first-time mom herself, Mills is interested in the effect of natural disasters on pregnancy. “The pregnant population is not considered vulnerable by traditional standards,” she said. “Then there is the problem of evacuation. Pregnant women hesitate because evacuation may not be necessary if the hurricane veers away or changes its category. The morning sickness that accompanies the first trimester of pregnancy may make the mother reluctant to move but by the time they are nine months pregnant, they are immobile. Plus, there is a relation between stress and birth outcomes. High levels of stress have an impact on pregnancy and child development. There was a study conducted in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 that found a negative impact of storm stress on pregnancy. Add to the equation the limited access in certain areas to medical care and a predisposition to poor birth outcomes and even infant mortality among the socially vulnerable and you have serious health burdens on an already burdened population.”

Her current research follows twin paths. The first leads to the use of GIS to track the recovery of New Orleans on a street-by-street basis. “In particular, there is geospatial video,” she explained. “That translates to equipping vehicles with cameras linked to a Global Positioning System. Every second, the video linked to GPS makes a street-by-street record of recovery. This way, we can code individual buildings. This one is back because we can see cars parked out in front. We record a mowed lawn instead of a boarded-up home. This technology was used in San Diego in 2007 following their wildfires. By studying the neighborhoods, we can detect patterns of recovery. Where once researchers walked neighborhoods with paper surveys, now they can drive through and look at change over time and space. I want to shrink the scale of study to block by block. Without good neighborhoods, you do not have a viable city.”

Her second research path tracks time. “We realized from living in Louisiana that recovery from disasters does not take just one year,” she said. “It is important to keep coming back to affected areas.”

Mills’ ultimate goal is to examine public disaster policy. “I want to look at federal, state and local policies,” she said. “I want to understand what is to be done to mitigate the effects of disasters. What does the citizenry require of its government, whether here or Haiti, in terms of protection? There is a line between the freedom to do what we want economically, to build and drill where we want, and the need for protection. That is a tough balance to strike. We tend not to plan for worst-case scenarios because they are too expensive. We plan for what happens regularly. We are usually protected but when the big ones strike, whether they are earthquakes or hurricanes, we are unprepared.”

She is especially concerned with small communities. “It is already difficult to continue with the fishing industry in some small coastal towns. Plus, the younger Louisiana generation doesn’t want that life,” she said. “In Mike Tidwell’s 2004 book Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast he talks about how the younger generations don’t want the lives of shrimpers. They want to live in the city. These communities were in trouble before the oil spill. Now they face another roadblock to the continuation of their way of life. This is probably my biggest concern, the death of their community and of their culture.”