Council publishes updated guide for technological disasters

Photo of Cordova, the community that was studied after the Exxon Valdez oil spill to determine the effects of a technological disaster on a community.
“The fishing season of 1989 was projected to be the opportunity of a lifetime: big volume, big prices. Then the oil spill hit…no herring season, no fishing season. Everybody left to work the oil spill; your employees left to work the spill. Then the people who made big money working the spill left the following winter after the spill. So, businesses were all inventoried up, all dressed up for the party which didn’t come…”
– Cordova, Alaska, business owner, 1989

Oil spill contingency plans are helpful guides for physically preventing and cleaning up spills. However, as Alaskans learned after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, they are not designed to help people who live in the affected communities. These residents need help to understand, manage, and recover from the social and economic consequences of a technological disaster, such as an oil spill.

In the early 1990s, the Council developed a guide to help fill this need. “Coping with Technological Disasters – A User-Friendly Guidebook” can help individuals and communities deal with the disruptions brought by a technological disaster.

This past year an update to the guide was completed.

What is a technological disaster?

A technological disaster is a catastrophic event caused by humans which often results in toxic contamination of the environment. The effects are different than a natural disaster.

How does a technological disaster compare to a natural disaster?

A natural disaster tends to create a “therapeutic” community. People pull together to help each other recover from disasters such as tornados, floods, or earthquakes.

A technological disaster can have a corrosive effect on a community. Residents of an affected area may experience a range of disruptions in their communities, affecting family, friends, and work. These effects can be both visible and invisible. The conflict, tension, fear, and extended litigation can result in long-term psychological stress.

Visible disruptions

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—local businesses, Native corporations, and city governments—lost workers and found it even harder to function normally during the crisis.

These visible disruptions can usually be restored in a reasonable length of time.

Invisible disruptions

More difficult to restore is the damage to mental and physical health of residents. These issues are harder to identify and can last a long time. Because they are hard to see, they are often ignored or misunderstood.
Studies showed that mental health impacts persisted decades after the Exxon Valdez spill. These effects disrupted families and led to family violence, depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, and psychological impairment, lingering for decades.

The effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on the people of Port Graham

Walter Meganack, Sr
Walter Meganack, Sr

“Our people get sick. Elders and children in the village, workers on the beaches, lots of sickness this year; stomachaches, head pain, bad colds.

We hardly talk to each other anymore. Everybody is touchy. Everybody is ready to jump on you and blame you.

People are angry and afraid, afraid and confused. Our elders feel helpless. They cannot work. They can’t work on the cleanup. They cannot do all the activities of gathering food and preparing for the winter.

And most of all, they cannot teach their young ones the Native way. How will the children learn the values and the ways if the water is dead? Very afraid if the water is dead. If the water is dead, maybe we are dead, our heritage, our tradition, our ways of life and living and relating to nature and to each other.”

– Walter Meganack, Sr
Village Chief
Port Graham, Alaska
June 26, 1989

Update incorporates new knowledge

After the 1989 spill, Dr. Steve Picou, a sociologist from the University of South Alabama, brought his research team to Cordova to study the impacts. They interviewed residents about their experiences and used the results to develop the first version of this guide.

In the years since Dr. Picou’s study, the guidebook was used to aid communities dealing with various disasters, including the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Many lessons were learned along the way. The updated guidebook incorporates new strategies based on events and recent scientific research.

The guidebook was revised based on the input of many contributors including Council volunteers Patience Andersen Faulkner, Dr. Jeffrey Brooks, and leadership from Dr. Davin Holen from Alaska Sea Grant.

The updated guidebook and appendices including extensive resources are available at: Coping with Technological Disasters: A User Friendly Guidebook

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