Colorado State University Sociologist Helping Gulf Coast High School Students Establish Disaster Recovery Program

Note to Reporters: Hurricane Katrina made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, en route to becoming the costliest natural disaster in United States history.

Colorado State University sociologist Lori Peek, working in collaboration with faculty members and staff from Columbia University, has utilized her extensive background in disaster research to help establish a unique youth development and recovery program at selected Gulf Coast high schools.

The SHOREline Project, a partnership between CSU’s Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis, Columbia’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, and the Children’s Health Fund, enlists students at five participating high schools to perform community service and outreach in areas ravaged in recent years by the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill (2010), Hurricane Katrina (2005), and other major disasters. The “SHORE” in “SHOREline” stands for Skills, Hope, Opportunity, Recovery and Engagement.

“The children and youth of the Gulf Coast region have been exposed to more disasters over the past decade than any other group of young people in the United States,” said Peek. “In many ways, they have become experts at absorbing and adapting to the consequences of these extreme events.”

At the same time, Peek said, youth interviewed by faculty and students from CSU and Columbia “are not helpless. They are eager to assist other children and youth who have experienced disaster losses in other communities.”

Peek, a sociology professor and co-director of the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis at CSU, has done research on disaster recovery in the Gulf region, focusing on vulnerable populations such as low-income families, racial and ethnic minorities, women, and children. She co-edited Displaced: Life in the Katrina Diaspora, and is co-author of the forthcoming book Children of Katrina. These texts draw on hundreds of interviews with survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

Peek spent the past year as a visiting research scientist working with David Abramson, the deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness in Columbia’s Earth Institute. Their team surveyed 1,437 parents from Florida to Louisiana about their children’s exposure and health impacts from the oil spill. The research team also conducted group interviews with parents, health care providers, teachers, and others in several coastal communities impacted by the spill.

More than half the parents interviewed reported their children had some type of exposure to the oil spill, and more than 40 percent said their children experienced either mental or physical health effects such as trouble breathing, behavioral issues, or depression or anxiety.

Parents worried not only about the health of their children but also about future opportunities for them in the face of extreme environmental change. For example, one parent in Bayou la Batre, Ala., told Peek: “People have lost their jobs. They really didn’t know what to do, because their grandfathers had been fishermen and their fathers had been fishermen, and so the kids were going to fish, too. Once the oil spill happened, it was kind of a shock to them, so that’s part of where a lot of the depression comes from. They don’t really know what to do instead of shrimping because that is what they are raised on.”

The team responded to their findings by creating SHOREline, which combines project-based learning, community service, and opportunities for youth to build connections with local and national innovators to help them make a difference in their communities. The first five chapters were established at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans; Bryant High School in South Mobile County, Ala.; Grand Isle School in Jefferson Parish, La.; Gulfport High School in Gulfport, Miss.; and South LaFourche High School in Cut Off, La.

Students in SHOREline chapters will first focus on what they and their communities needed – or still need – to recover from the disasters. They will also identify the particular assets and skills that youth can bring to the task.

The projects they develop are intended to inform, inspire, and directly engage youth in other communities affected by disaster. The work could range from writing a book that captures young people’s stories of disaster to creating a website that serves as a platform for family reunification or resource exchange, or assembling hurricane evacuation kits made for children and youth. Each chapter will identify a particular problem that affected youth in their community post-disaster, and then will create its own solution.

Peek said she is excited about this new program “because it is designed to reduce vulnerability among the youngest survivors of disaster, while also encouraging the development of their strengths and capacities.”

Peek said one of the adolescents that she interviewed in Cut Off, La., told her, “If you think you’re too small and you can’t make a difference … you can actually make a difference. Anyone can make a difference.” Peek said that teen’s approach “is exactly the kind of positive outlook, even among children who have now suffered so many losses, that gives me so much hope.”

For more information, visit the SHOREline website: