Coping with Technological Disasters and Peer Listener Training

Technological disasters, such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, disrupt communities in many ways. The most obvious and tangible disruptions occur to the ordinary flow of goods, services, and jobs. For example, the 1989 spill created thousands of high-paid jobs in cleanup work. As a result, ordinary employers in communities—village stores, Native corporations, and city governments—lost workers and found it even harder to function normally during the crisis.

These visible disruptions can be measured and monitored and usually goods and services can be restored in a reasonable length of time. However, there are other often ignored, poorly defined, poorly understood, intangible adverse impacts stemming from a technological disaster. These include initial negative mental health impacts and chronic long-term psychological and physical impacts.

Results of Exxon Valdez oil spill studies indicate that mental health impacts still persisted 10 years post-spill. These impacts included disruption of family structure and unity, family violence, depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, and psychological impairment. The extent of chronic mental health patterns appears to be correlated to the extent that a community is dependent on its natural resources for survival. As such, Native and non-Native fishing and subsistence-based communities are at higher risk for elevated levels of chronic psychological stress associated with technological disasters.

Coping with Technological Disasters


Human impacts of oil spills are not typically addressed in state and federal contingency plans. To help fill this significant gap in oil spill planning, the council applied the results of several years of socioeconomic research and developed the “Coping with Technological Disasters” guidebook and appendices. The guidebook explains how communities can deal with technological disasters. It contains proven strategies to help ease the psychological and socioeconomic impacts of oil spills. Strategies are provided to help local governments, small businesses, families, and individuals cope with disruptions and other issues caused by oil spills.

The guidebook has become an assessment tool and road map, enabling communities and individuals alike to understand what a technological disaster is, how it differs from a natural disaster, what to expect during the disaster, and in the years following the event. The guidebook provides information on where to find help.

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The above guidebook received the Legacy Award in 2000 from the Pacific States/British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force.

Peer Listener Training

Part of the “Coping With Technological Disasters” guidebook project included a training course on peer listener training.  This training teaches peer-listening techniques that allow community members to counsel each other. A community member can learn to be an advisor, friend, and referral agent for people who may not want professional services or may not know that help is available.

The peer listener training information is available in the guidebook’s Appendix F.  The council also produced an award-winning video/DVD training course based on the peer listener training.

Developed during the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, this training was used during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and is now being used to help victims of disasters such as the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The updated version is available now. If you would like a DVD copy, please contact the council’s Anchorage office: 277-7222.

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The Peer Listener Training Manual was updated by the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium to help with response to BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.  Find out more about this project on the consortium’s website:  Peer Listener Training.